WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday that the U.S. would support efforts by Russia and Ukraine to resolve a yearslong conflict outside of an internationally backed agreement signed by both countries, the implementation of which has long been a U.S. condition for lifting sanctions against Moscow.
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The comments by Mr. Tillerson, in testimony before the House Foreign Relations Committee, appeared to mark a departure from longstanding U.S. policy and represents a potential break from other world powers, including Germany and France, who have supported the cease-fire and peace accords reached in Minsk, Belarus, in 2014 and 2015.
"I think it's important we be given sufficient flexibility to achieve the Minsk objectives," Mr. Tillerson said, adding, "It's possible that the government of Ukraine and the government of Russia could come to a satisfactory resolution through some structure other than Minsk, but would achieve the objectives of Minsk, which we're committed to."
Mr. Tillerson previously has said the U.S. would maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements are fully implemented, and Washington and European allies have long been united in demanding so.
Mr. Tillerson most recently told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that would be the case in a May 10 meeting in Washington, according to an account of the meeting by State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
"On Ukraine, Secretary Tillerson stressed the need for progress toward full implementation of the Minsk agreements. Sanctions on Russia will remain in place until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered them," Ms. Nauert said then.
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A day later, after President Donald Trump met separately with Mr. Lavrov and Ukraine's foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, he called for the parties to make peace, presenting the U.S. as something of a neutral arbiter. The Obama administration previously presented the U.S. as an advocate for Ukraine's sovereignty and demanded that Russia cease its occupation of Crimea as well as its support for armed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
U.S. and European officials often have voiced dismay on the absence of progress on implementing the specific points of the Minsk agreements, which include holding local elections in Ukraine's breakaway Donbas region and returning the border with Russia to Ukrainian control. But this is the first time the U.S. has suggested the possibility of brokering an entirely new peace deal.
The Senate late Monday reached an agreement on tougher Russia sanctions that also would require the president to seek congressional permission to relax the current regime of sanctions on Russia.
Mr. Tillerson told members of the House committee on Wednesday that the administration needs flexibility to "turn up the heat when we need to, but also to insure that we have the ability to maintain a constructive dialogue."
He also said he worried about tying U.S. sanctions to Minsk, as the Trump and Obama administrations have said they would.
"My caution is I wouldn't want to have ourselves handcuffed to Minsk if it turns out the parties decide to settle this through another, a different agreement," he said.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 14, 2017 12:52 ET (16:52 GMT)