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US Escalates Criticism of Russia Over Ukraine, Vows Sanctions to Stay


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses the press before a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, March 31, 2017.

The Trump administration escalated its criticism of Moscow Friday, with two of its most senior officials denouncing Russia’s treatment of Ukraine and reiterating a vow to maintain U.S. sanctions.

In his first visit to a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused Russia of “aggression” in Ukraine and told his counterparts that their alliance is “fundamental to countering both nonviolent, but at times violent, Russian agitation” in the region.

He also said U.S. sanctions against Moscow will remain in effect until it “reverses the actions” that triggered them. Washington imposed the sanctions in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and expanded them after Moscow began providing military aid to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Tillerson’s previous language on Russia had been more conciliatory. After his first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a Group of 20 major economies meeting in Bonn in February, Tillerson said the U.S. wants to find “new common ground” with Russia and “expects” it to honor commitments to de-escalate violence in Ukraine as part of the 2015 Minsk agreement.

U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, whose role is subordinate to Tillerson, similarly criticized Russian “aggression” and vowed to keep U.S. sanctions in place in remarks to the U.N. Security Council February 2.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis also fired a verbal attack at Russia Friday. Echoing language he used in February, Mattis told reporters in London that Russian “violations” of international law are now a “matter of record — from what happened with Crimea to other aspects of their behavior in mucking around inside other people’s elections” — a likely reference to U.S. allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign.

Senior Russian lawmaker Alexey Pushkov was not amused by the U.S. verbal assaults. In a Friday tweet, he said the new U.S. administration “sounds like the old one — Mattis is indistinguishable from (former Defense Secretary Ash) Carter, Tillerson is talking about ‘Russian aggression.’ (Barack) Obama and (Hillary) Clinton must be happy.”

Bloomberg reported that Tillerson’s tough language on Russia was well-received by NATO officials.

Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (left) and former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow (center) participate in a Hudson Institute forum in Washington, March 30, 2017.
Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (left) and former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow (center) participate in a Hudson Institute forum in Washington, March 30, 2017.

But NATO’s previous secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, told VOA Persian that he believes the Trump administration should go further. After speaking at a Hudson Institute forum in Washington Thursday, Rasmussen said the U.S. should “strengthen” its sanctions in response to what he called Russia’s continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine.

Watch: Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on US Sanctions

Tillerson and Mattis made no reference in their new remarks to Russia’s plans for more weapons sales to Iran, a nation the Trump administration has warned against threatening the U.S. or its Middle East allies.

A Russian lawmaker who heads the upper house of parliament’s defense and security committee, Viktor Ozerov, visited Iran last November and told reporters that Tehran was in talks to buy $10 billion worth of Russian military hardware. Ozerov said any Russian deliveries of conventional weapons to Iran likely will have to wait until 2020 when U.N. restrictions on arms sales to Tehran expire.

Moscow had taken a major step to boost military cooperation with Tehran before Ozerov’s announcement, delivering an S-300 advanced air defense system to Iran last year.

U.S. officials responded to the Russian-Iranian weapons talks with alarm, according to The Washington Free Beacon news site. It quoted State Department officials as saying they had long been working behind the scenes to persuade Moscow not to sell weapons to Iran.

Former NATO deputy secretary general Alexander Vershbow, who also spoke at Thursday’s Washington forum, told VOA Persian he does not think U.S. sanctions alone can stop Russia from arming Iran.

Watch: Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow on US Sanctions and Russia

“To be effective, the U.S. would have to adopt a unified sanctions approach with Europe,” Vershbow said. “While some sanctions imposed on Russia because of Ukraine may cover the Russian defense as well as financial sectors, targeting additional sanctions against Moscow specifically because of Iran may not be an easy issue for agreement with Europe, given its desire not to harm the Iran nuclear deal.”

Iran agreed to curb activities that could produce nuclear weapons as part of a 2015 deal with world powers, who agreed to ease sanctions against Tehran in return.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian Service.

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