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Senators to Trump: Meet Ukraine Leader Before Sitting Down with Putin

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko marks the inaugural flight of the new Antonov An-132D at the airport near Hostomel, near Kiev, Ukraine, on March 31, 2017. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators has asked the Trump administration to put Ukraine and former Soviet bloc allies before Russia when it comes to international engagement.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday in D.C. The State Department said the pair would discuss “Ukraine, Syria, and bilateral issues.”

“On Ukraine, the sides will discuss the need to stop the violence in eastern Ukraine and resolve the conflict through the full implementation of the Minsk agreements,” the department said. “On Syria, the Secretary intends to discuss efforts to de-escalate violence, provide humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict.”

In a letter Monday to President Trump, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-R.I.), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) “strongly” encouraged the commander in chief “to engage our traditional allies and prioritize meeting foreign leaders representing countries with whom we share historical ties, democratic values, and mutual interests.”

“We were pleased to see Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in March after public reports indicated that he might not,” they wrote. “We believe it is critical for the United States to maintain high level engagement with our most important allies, and Secretary Tillerson’s participation in this meeting and others like it signals our commitment to our friends and our adversaries alike.”

The senators noted that allies in Europe “are anxiously awaiting policy direction from your administration about our commitments to NATO and other institutions that preserve the international order that has served as the framework for international stability and security since the end of the Second World War.”

“Specifically, along with our most stalwart allies in Europe, we remain concerned about Russia’s continued military aggression in Eastern Ukraine and ongoing occupation of Crimea,” they continued. “Because of Russia’s destabilizing influence, approximately 10,000 people have been killed, over 20,000 wounded, and nearly 2 million internally displaced since 2014. This kind of instability can have far-reaching consequences for our allies and our interests in the region.”

“In this vein, we strongly encourage you to meet with senior leaders from Ukraine, including President Petro Poroshenko, in advance of any official meetings with senior Russian officials including Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

The senators told the president that “meeting with democratically elected representatives from Ukraine would send a strong signal that the United States continues to prioritize our relationship with longstanding allies, and will continue our commitments to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of ongoing aggression.”

In a New York Times op-ed Monday, McCain hammered the administration for its priorities at the State Department.

“In a recent address to State Department employees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said conditioning our foreign policy too heavily on values creates obstacles to advance our national interests,” McCain wrote. “With those words, Secretary Tillerson sent a message to oppressed people everywhere: Don’t look to the United States for hope.”

“Our values make us sympathetic to your plight, and, when it’s convenient, we might officially express that sympathy. But we make policy to serve our interests, which are not related to our values. So, if you happen to be in the way of our forging relationships with your oppressors that could serve our security and economic interests, good luck to you. You’re on your own.”