NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has praised Rex Tillerson for what he called a "strong personal commitment" to the alliance and said "rumors" that the U.S. secretary of state could lose his job would not affect meetings this week in Brussels.
Stoltenberg spoke on December 4, ahead of Tillerson's expected arrival for a December 5-6 NATO foreign ministers meeting and talks with Belgian officials.
The NATO chief said that the Western military alliance "and NATO ministers are able to focus on the core tasks of the job we have to do despite any speculation and rumors."
He praised what he said was Tillerson's "strong personal commitment to the transatlantic bond and to NATO."
Tillerson's December 4-8 trip to Europe comes days after The New York Times and other media published reports, citing unnamed sources, of a White House plan to force him out as secretary of state.
Tillerson is scheduled to attend NATO, EU, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meetings and to hold bilateral talks with Belgian and Austrian officials in Brussels and Vienna on December 5-7. He is due to make a stop in Paris on December 8 for meetings with French officials.
An encounter with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is also planned on the sidelines of a meeting of the OSCE in the Austrian capital.
Ahead of his European tour, Tillerson stressed Washington's commitment to European security, especially as Russia continues what he called its "aggressive behavior."
Speaking at the Wilson Center think tank on November 28, Tillerson said Russia's military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, and interference in European elections and politics were unacceptable.
Growing Cloud Or 'Fake News'
Two days after the speech, U.S. media reported that the White House had a plan for CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson.
U.S. President Donald Trump rejected the reports as "fake news," while Tillerson called them "laughable."
Ahead of Tillerson's arrival, U.S. envoy to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said that "there has been no change whatsoever" in planning for two days of talks between Tillerson and his NATO counterparts on December 5-6.
The president and the secretary of state have often contradicted each other in public statements regarding major international issues.
Tillerson has also been accused by Democrats and some Republicans of weakening U.S. diplomacy by planning staff cuts and not filling major positions at the State Department.
Meanwhile, some European leaders have expressed concern over Trump's "America First" rhetoric and mixed signals sent by U.S. officials regarding NATO and the European Union.
An EU official involved in diplomacy with White House officials told the Reuters news agency that "it seems [Tillerson] has no mandate, that the guillotine is hanging over his head."
"It leaves Europe just as doubtful as before about Trump," the official added.
"The chaos in the administration doesn't help in the current geopolitical climate," a French diplomat was quoted as saying.
In Brussels, Tillerson will participate in a December 5-6 NATO foreign ministers meeting and will also meet with EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini and foreign ministers of the bloc to discuss "U.S.-EU cooperation on major global issues," the State Department said in a statement.
On December 7 in Vienna, he will attend the opening and first plenary sessions of the OSCE Ministerial Council -- the central decision-making and governing body of the organization.
War In Ukraine
Ukraine "will very much be on the agenda" during the OSCE talks, a senior State Department official said on December 1, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The secretary really has a heart for...the safety and security of the Ukrainian people in the east in the occupied territories who continue to be the target of military operations with the encouragement and participation of forces from the Russian Federation," the official also said.
Fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.
Several cease-fire deals announced as part of the Minsk accords -- September 2014 and February 2015 pacts aimed at resolving the conflict -- have failed to hold.
The OSCE has deployed an unarmed Special Monitoring Mission to the country (OSCE SMM) to observe and report on the situation.
Discussions about deploying a peacekeeping force have heated up since September, when Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed deploying UN peacekeepers along the line separating Ukrainian government forces and the Russia-backed separatists.
The plan swiftly drew criticism from both Kyiv and the West, largely because of concerns that deployment only along the front line would cement Russian control over separatist-held territory and do nothing to stop Russia from sending fighters and weapons into Ukraine. Putin later said he was open to adjustments to his initial proposal, but no agreement has been reached.
"It needs to be an outcome that would have a UN force encompassing the contested area and not just ratifying the gains that the Russians have made on the ground," the State Department official said.
The official said that a meeting between Tillerson and Lavrov was tentatively scheduled for December 7 on the sidelines of the OSCE meeting in Vienna.
"We have a fairly robust set of discussions under way with the Russians on a lot of global issues" including North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs and the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the official said.
Tillerson is to meet with Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz to discuss "combating violent extremism, curbing nuclear proliferation, promoting democratic and economic reform in the Western Balkans, and deepening bilateral trade ties," the State Department said.
It said Tillerson was set to travel to Paris on December 8 to discuss "our deep cooperation on issues of mutual concern" around the world, such as Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, and North Korea, with senior French leaders.
With reporting by AFP, Reuters, AP, and TASS