Tillerson urges Moscow to take 'first step' to ease Ukraine conflict

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Sunday Russia must make the first move to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, during a first official visit to Kiev that President Petro Poroshenko called a powerful signal of US support.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following their talks in Moscow, Russia, on April 12, 2017.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following their talks in Moscow, Russia, on April 12, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

KIEV (AFP) - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Russia on Sunday (July 10) to take the "first step" to ease the bloody separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, which Kiev and the West believe is being fuelled by Moscow.

Tillerson said sanctions will remain in place against Russia "until Moscow reverses their actions".

"It is necessary for Russia to take the first step to de-escalate the situation in the east part of Ukraine," Tillerson said as he made his first visit as Washington's top diplomat to Kiev.

"We are disappointed by the lack of progress under the Minsk agreement," he added at a joint briefing with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after they held talks.

Tillerson's visit to Ukraine followed a first face-to-face meeting between President Donald Trump and Russia's Vladimir Putin on Friday at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.

The conflict as well as Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 have pushed ties between Moscow and the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.

"We do call on Russia to honour its commitments," Tillerson said Sunday, referring to a peace deal aimed at halting the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia rebels.

Tillerson urged the Kremlin "to respect the ceasefire, by pulling back the heavy weapons and (allowing) the OSCE (pan-European security body) tocarry out their responsibilities" under the deal struck in February 2015.

More than 10,000 people have been killed since the pro-Russian insurgency began in April 2014, which Kiev and the West accuse Moscow of orchestrating.

The US and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia, though Moscow has denied backing the rebels.

SANCTIONS TO REMAIN

"The US and EU sanctions on Russia will remain in place until Moscow reverses their actions," Tillerson stressed.

Efforts to secure a peace deal have foundered as the fighting has dragged on, and neither side appears prepared to make concessions.

Tillerson said he had appointed a special envoy to allow Washington to be more involved in a peace process overseen by Germany and France.

Poroshenko hailed US involvement and reiterated his commitment to seeking a negotiated peace deal.

"Most of all we want peace in Ukraine. We firmly adhere to our commitments," Ukrainian leader said.

Tillerson also commented on another key bone of contention between Trump and Putin at the G20: allegations of Russian interference in US election campaign, in favour of the Republican candidate.

On Friday Trump broached the issue with the Russian leader in Hamburg, and Putin denied it.

"In all candidness we did not expect an answer other than the one we received," Tillerson told reporters Sunday in Kiev.

"What we agreed on the cyber front is to explore a framework ... on how to deal with these very complex issues of cyber threats, cyber security, cyber intrusions," he added.