STATE DEPARTMENT - During his first official visit to Kyiv Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the U.S. has told Russia it must take the first steps to de-escalate violence in Eastern Ukraine.
“I’ve been very clear in my discussions with Russian leadership on more than one occasion, that it is necessary for Russia to take the first steps to de-escalate the situation in the east part of Ukraine, in particular by respecting the ceasefire by pulling back the heavy weapons and allowing the OSCE observers to carry out their responsibilities," Tillerson said, speaking alongside Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the two met to discuss ways to help end the conflict in eastern Ukraine and support its ongoing reform efforts.
Watch: Tillerson Heads to Ukraine Following Trump-Putin Meeting
“As long as the parties commit themselves to these goals I’m confident we can make progress," Tillerson added, referring to the Minsk agreements - a cease-fire deal that Moscow and Kyiv agreed to in 2015.
Tillerson has named former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker to serve as Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.
Volker, who was traveling with Tillerson to Ukraine, will also engage regularly with all parties handling the Ukraine negotiations under the so-called Normandy Format -- Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine.
In an interview with VOA’s Ukraine service recently, Volker laid out his vision on Ukraine: “We need to have Ukraine, which is a sustainable, resilient, prosperous, strong democracy, so that it would be attractive to the regions in the East, and [be the place]where disinformation and propaganda attacks don’t really have much traction.”
Although Tillerson is seeking to rebuild trust with the Russians, Washington dismissed speculation that it will cut a deal with Moscow over Kyiv.
“There certainly is no intent or desire to work exclusively with Russia,” a senior State Department official said earlier this week. "This is a multiparty issue, resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine. “
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. would not be backing away from concerns of Russia’s support of rebels in eastern Ukraine.
“We believe that the so-called rebels are Russian-backed, Russian-financed, and are responsible for the deaths of Ukrainians,” Nauert said Thursday in a briefing. "We continue to call upon the Russians and the Ukrainians to come together.”
Make clear support for sovereignty
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told VOA on Friday that Tillerson should make it clear of “U.S. strong support for Ukraine sovereignty and territorial integrity, U.S. recognition that Russia is conducting a war in Ukraine, and U.S. willingness to provide necessary support.”
Herbst said he expects Poroshenko to bring up the massive Russian cyberattack against Ukraine during Sunday’s meeting with Tillerson, and the U.S. “has a great deal to learn” for what Ukraine has done to counteract these Russia attacks.
“I suspect we will see more cooperation in the future,” Herbst added.
Tillerson had told U.S. lawmakers that the United States should not be "handcuffed" to the 2015 Minsk agreement in case the parties decide to reach their goals through a different deal.
Senior officials later clarified that Washington would “not exclude looking at other options” as the U.S. is still fully supportive of the Minsk agreements.
“The Minsk agreements are the existing framework,” a senior State Department official said. "There is no better option out there.”
The so-called Minsk II agreement is a package of measures to alleviate the ongoing conflicts, including a cease-fire, between Moscow-backed rebels and government forces in eastern Ukraine. It was agreed to by Ukraine, Russia and separatists in February of 2015.