Sources: Tillerson Plans to Skip NATO Meeting But Visit Russia in April

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Toru Hanai/Pool Photo via AP)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to skip a meeting with NATO foreign ministers next month in order to stay home for a visit by China’s president and will go to Russia later in April, U.S. officials said on Monday, disclosing an itinerary that allies may see as giving Moscow priority over them.

Tillerson intends to miss what would have been his first meeting of the 28 NATO allies on April 5-6 in Brussels so that he can attend President Donald Trump’s expected April 6-7 talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, four current and former U.S. officials said.

Skipping the NATO meeting and visiting Moscow could risk feeding a perception that President Trump may be putting U.S. dealings with big powers first, while leaving waiting those smaller nations that depend on Washington for security, two former U.S. officials said.

President Trump has often praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Tillerson worked with Russia’s government for years as a top executive at Exxon Mobil Corp, and has questioned the wisdom of sanctions against Russia that he said could harm U.S. businesses.

A State Department spokeswoman said Tillerson would meet on Wednesday with foreign ministers from 26 of the 27 other NATO countries – all but Croatia – at a gathering of the coalition working to defeat the Islamic State militant group.

The State Department spokeswoman said Tillerson would not have a separate, NATO-focused meeting with the 26 foreign ministers in Washington but rather that they would meet in the counter-Islamic State talks.

“After these consultations and meetings, in April he will travel to a meeting of the G-7 (Group of Seven) in Italy and then on to meetings in Russia,” she added, saying U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon would represent the United States at the NATO foreign ministers meeting.

Any Russian visit by a senior Trump administration official may be carefully scrutinized after the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Monday publicly confirmed that his agency was investigating any collusion between the Russian government and Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign.

President Trump has already worried NATO allies by referring to the Western security alliance as “obsolete” and by pressing other members to meet their commitments to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.

Last week, he dismayed British officials by shrugging off a media report, forcefully denied by Britain, that the administration of former President Barack Obama tapped his phones during the 2016 White House race with the aid of Britain’s GCHQ spy agency.

A former U.S. official and a former NATO diplomat, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said the alliance offered to change the meeting dates so Tillerson could attend it and the Xi Jinping talks, but the State Department had rebuffed the idea.

The former diplomat said it was vital to present a united front toward Moscow. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949 to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

“Given the challenge that Russia poses, not just to the United States but to Europe, it’s critical to engage on the basis of a united front if at all possible,” the diplomat said.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry declined on Tuesday to confirm or deny the reports of Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, expressing its surprise at the “regular leak” of information from Washington.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in response to media requests for confirmation of Tillerson’s Moscow visit that the ministry was “not prepared to confirm or deny this information.”

“But we are certainly surprised by the regular leak of sensitive information from Washington,” she said.

“It’s time for U.S. political elites to figure out if ‘Russian hackers’ have once again got into State Department servers or if the threat to U.S. cyber security has an American origin after all,” Zakharova said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said later he was unaware of plans by Tillerson to visit Moscow.