The United States on Thursday strongly told Russia that their persistent differences over the Ukraine conflict were “an obstacle to any normalization” between the two countries, whose relations are at their lowest.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov were at the center of attention in Vienna, where Foreign Ministers and representatives of 57 member states of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe meet (OSCE).
The organization’s annual meeting – with Austria holding the rotating presidency this year – is being held as Washington and Moscow have been debating for several months a deployment of peacekeeping forces in Ukraine.
A rapprochement on this controversial issue seems out of reach as the exchanges were firm Thursday between the two leaders.
At a press conference with his Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz, Rex Tillerson recalled that President Donald Trump had clearly hoped last year to revive relations with Russia.
“But the question that stands in the way is that of Ukraine,” he said. “We can have a dispute in other areas (…) but when one country invades another, it is a dispute difficult to ignore or accept”.
“And we have made it clear to Russia from the very beginning: we have to seize the Ukrainian question, it is the most difficult obstacle to normalize our relations”.
At a meeting of OSCE Ministers in the morning, Mr Tillerson had already set the tone: “Of all the challenges facing the OSCE today, none is more difficult and frustrating than the situation in Ukraine”. The United States will not lift its sanctions as long as Russia’s control of Crimea and Donbass will last, he warned.
Relations between Washington and Moscow are also sealed by accusations of Russian interference in the US presidential election and suspicions of collusion between the Republican campaign team and Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
– “Crisis of confidence” –
Rex Tillerson noted that there were more civilians killed this year in eastern Ukraine than in 2016, and that ceasefire violations had increased by 60%: “We must be clear on the source of this violence: Russia arms, directs, trains and fights alongside anti-government forces. ”
Some 600 OSCE observers are overseeing the more than fragile ceasefire between Kiev forces and Russia-backed separatist rebels.
Moscow has been supporting the deployment of peacekeepers for months to protect this OSCE mission. But Western powers argue for a broader mandate to maintain peace throughout the disputed Donbass region.
This assumption of an enlarged mandate is unacceptable to Sergei Lavrov, who on Thursday equated it with “an occupation administration (…) with the aim (…) of solving this problem by force”. He blamed Washington for wanting to “distort” the Russian initiative.
The two ministers, however, engaged in dialogue at a closed-door bilateral meeting that Lavrov described as “concrete”. Mr. Tillerson observed “progress”.
The Russian foreign minister also spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Klimkine, a first according to Russian news agencies.
The OSCE is a forum for discussion in the politico-military field, the economy, human rights for 57 countries, from the United States to Mongolia, Canada, the entire European continent, Central Asia and Russia.
Created during the Cold War to facilitate East-West dialogue, the organization has served as a forum for dialogue since the beginning of the clashes in Ukraine.
But the OSCE also suffers from international diplomatic tensions that hinder its decision-making processes. In the institution, “the trust between the main actors is at its lowest,” said Thursday the OSCE Secretary General Thomas Greminger.