Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s team accused Russia on Wednesday of “turn[ing] away from an opportunity” to repair relations with the United States, following the cancellation of an upcoming diplomatic summit.
“We regret that Russia has decided to turn away from an opportunity to discuss bilateral obstacles that hinder U.S.-Russia relations,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a Monday statement. “We remain open to future discussions.”
A top State Department official was scheduled to travel to St. Petersburg for a June 23 follow-up on Tillerson’s March meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The Russians cancelled that meeting after the Treasury Department applied existing U.S. sanctions to 38 people and entities, including two Russian government officials, involved in the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine.
“The situation is not conducive to holding a round of this dialogue,” Sergey Ryabkov, the deputy foreign minister, said according to the Associated Press.
Tillerson’s team accused Russia of overreacting. “The maintenance package of sanctions issued yesterday by the Treasury Department, which only reinforced existing sanctions, was designed to counter attempts to circumvent our sanctions and to maintain alignment of U.S. measures with those of our international partners,” Nauert said. “We have regularly updated these sanctions twice a year since they were first imposed.”
The Russians protested that the new sanctions update is unwarranted because Ukraine has failed to fulfill its own obligations under the Minsk ceasefire agreements. “Sanctions have yet again been adopted without any good reason,” Lavrov told reporters. “Regrettably, our [European Union] colleagues have devised a devious formula, according to which all sanctions will be lifted when Russia implements the Minsk Agreements . . . The only thing I can say now is that I regret the anti-Russia obsession of our American colleagues that is overstepping the limits.”
Nauert countered that Russia provoked the sanctions by annexing Crimea from Ukraine and backing a violent separatist movement in regions that have a large population of ethnic Russians.
“Let’s remember that these sanctions didn’t just come out of nowhere,” she said. “If the Russians seek an end to these sanctions, they know very well the U.S. position: Our sanctions on Russia related Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine will remain in place until Russia fully honors its obligations under the Minsk Agreements. Our sanctions related to Crimea will not be lifted until Russia ends its occupation of the peninsula.”
Lavrov insisted that Russia is being blamed unfairly for an array of international crises. “When Ukrainian President Poroshenko fails to implement his obligations under the Minsk Agreements, sanctions are slapped on Russia,” he said. “When there are problems in Syria, the blame is laid on Russia and the government of Bashar al-Assad as well. I can provide many more examples when Russia was blamed for developments around the world just because US Congress was unhappy about something.”
The cancellation of the upcoming summit could strengthen Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s opposition to a new package of Russia sanctions that have passed the Senate but not the House. Tillerson warned lawmakers that the bill might preempt his efforts at diplomacy with Russia.