Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said 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.
Mr. Tillerson made his comments on Wednesday in testimony before the House Foreign Relations Committee. They appeared to mark a departure from longstanding U.S. policy and a potential break from other world powers, including Germany and France, which brokered and 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."
Pursuing an agreement outside of the Minsk accords could allow the two sides to go back to the drawing board and negotiate a pact that both are willing to implement, possibly without meeting benchmarks set in Minsk. It isn't clear whether such efforts are already under way.
The Minsk agreements call for local elections in Ukraine's breakaway Donbas region, the withdrawal of foreign-armed troops, and returning the border with Russia to Ukrainian control, among other points.
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 that demand.
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.
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 had 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 over the absence of progress on implementing the specific points of the Minsk accords. But Mr. Tillerson's comments Wednesday were the first time the U.S. has suggested the possibility of brokering an entirely new peace deal.
Supporters of the accords say they at least managed to largely freeze the conflict and keep Ukraine's borders in place. Any move that appears to scrap it could risk a return to full-scale violence, they say.
"The danger is political -- it's clear that none of us are satisfied with the degree to which Minsk has been implemented, but we have been consistent now for nearly three years in holding all the signatories to Minsk accountable for implementing it," said Daniel Baer, who was the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe during the Obama administration. "We want to be very careful about giving up one tool especially if we don't have another in place."
Meanwhile, the Senate on Wednesday approved tougher Russia sanctions that also would require the president to seek congressional permission to relax any part of the current sanctions regime on Russia.
Mr. Tillerson told members of the House committee 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 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," Mr. Tillerson said.
--Paul Sonne contributed to this article.
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 14, 2017 16:23 ET (20:23 GMT)