WASHINGTON, D.C.: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarks this week on a diplomatic mission to shore up alliances in Europe and their defenses against Russian aggression and subversion.
But as he prepares to set off Monday for Brussels, Vienna and Paris, his authority to speak for Washington has been called into question by a rift with President Donald Trump.
Anonymous leaks from the White House suggest the top diplomat could be replaced within weeks and —even while denying this—Trump reminded him: “I call the final shots.”
Tillerson has dismissed as “laughable” reports that Trump’s closest aides want him to resign, but rumors will inevitably dog him when he sits down with his European peers.
His trip is structured around ministerial conferences of the NATO allies in Brussels and the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in Vienna.
But the most closely watched encounter will be a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of the OSCE talks late in the week.
At NATO, alliance partners will want to hear how America can help defend them against the newly global threat of North Korea’s long-range nuclear missiles.
Tillerson gave a major speech on European policy in Washington on Tuesday to preview his agenda ahead of the trip—and he did not mince words about Russia.
He will tell his NATO Western allies that they must stand shoulder-to-shoulder to oppose “the enemies that threaten our security and oppose our way of life,” while Russia must be brought to reverse its intervention in eastern Ukraine through relentless sanctions pressure.
“Any resolution to the war that does not entail a fully independent, sovereign, territorially-whole Ukraine is unacceptable,” Tillerson declared.
“Our trans-Atlantic unity is meant to convey to the Russian government that we will not stand by this flagrant violation of international norms,” he said.
But for this warning to be credible, Tillerson must be seen as speaking for the whole US government and the president, who has shown no enthusiasm for sanctions against Russia.