Tillerson plans to skip NATO, visit Russia

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to skip a meeting with NATO foreign ministers next month in order to stay home for a visit by China’s president and will go to Russia later in April, US officials say.

Tillerson intends to miss what would have been his first meeting of the 28 NATO allies on April 5-6 in Brussels so that he can attend President Donald Trump’s expected April 6-7 talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, four current and former US officials said.

Skipping the NATO meeting and visiting Moscow could risk feeding a perception that Trump may be putting US dealings with big powers first, while leaving waiting those smaller nations that depend on Washington for security, two former US officials said.

Trump has often praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Tillerson worked with Russia’s government for years as a top executive at Exxon Mobil Corp, and has questioned the wisdom of sanctions against Russia that he said could harm US businesses.

A State Department spokeswoman said Tillerson would meet on Wednesday with foreign ministers from 26 of the 27 other NATO countries – all but Croatia – at a gathering of the coalition working to defeat the Islamic State militant group.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is due to arrive in Washington on Monday for a three-day visit that was to include talks with US Defence Secretary James Mattis and to take part in the counter-Islamic State meetings.

The State Department spokeswoman said Tillerson would not have a separate, NATO-focused meeting the 26 foreign ministers in Washington but rather that they would meet in the counter-Islamic State talks.

“After these consultations and meetings, in April he will travel to a meeting of the G7 (Group of Seven) in Italy and then on to meetings in Russia,” she added, saying US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon would represent the United States at the NATO foreign ministers meeting.

Representative Eliot Engel, the senior Democrat on the US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, said Tillerson was making a mistake by skipping the Brussels talks.

“Donald Trump’s Administration is making a grave error that will shake the confidence of America’s most important alliance and feed the concern that this Administration simply too cozy with (Russian President) Vladimir Putin,” Engel said in a written statement.

Originally published as Tillerson plans to skip NATO, visit Russia

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