Tillerson debuts at G20 opening as Ukraine and Russia take center stage | News | DW | 16.02.2017
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Tillerson debuts at G20 opening as Ukraine and Russia take center stage

The international gathering in Germany has kicked off with a slew of bilateral meetings between world leaders. Germany, Russia and the US all signaled their willingness to cooperate, but tensions among them remain.

As world leaders gathered at the World Conference Center in Bonn, Germany, on Thursday for the two-day G20 foreign ministers meeting, the recently appointed German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel appealed to Russia to use its leverage with pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in order to facilitate a weapons withdrawal and stem the violence that has flared up between separatists and Ukrainian government forces in the past month. 

Gabriel met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov,  and, according to Reuters news agency, called for the removal of heavy weaponry from the frontlines saying it "is essential to strengthen the [Minsk] ceasefire...which is far too fragile."

Deutschland Bonn G20 Treffen (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Meissner)

Gabriel held talks with Lavrov on day one of the G20

Gabriel also indicated that methods for building an enduring peace in Ukraine would be a key focus at this weekend's Munich Security Conference. 

Tillerson moves into the international spotlight

In addition to Gabriel, Lavrov also met with recently confirmed US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Though Tillerson maintained strong ties to Russia in his previous role as CEO of Exxon Mobile, the G20 marks the secretary of state's first encounter with most of the 20 member states' foreign ministers. All eyes remained focused on the Trump administration official as he held talks with the United Arab Emirates, Great Britain, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

After his face-to-face with Lavrov, Tillerson told reporters that the United States stands ready to cooperate with Russia when it is in American interests, echoing US President Donald Trump's "America First" rhetoric.

"The United States will consider working with Russia when we can find areas of practical cooperation that will benefit the American people," Tillerson said. However, he called on Moscow to "honor its commitment to the Minsk agreements and work to de-escalate violence in Ukraine" as a condition for collaboration. 

Tillerson also expressed a commitment to US allies. "Where we do not see eye to eye, the United States will stand up for the interests and values of America and her allies," he said. His statement came one day after US Secretary of Defense James Mattis called on European NATO members to increase their contributions to the military alliance or see Washington "moderate its commitment" accordingly. Mattis also said the United States was not currently in a position to cooperate militarily with Russia.

"We do not interfere in the domestic matters of other countries"

The meeting between the Russian and American ministers came at a sensitive time in the two countries' relationship, just days after US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned due to questionable contact with Russian officials prior to Trump's inauguration and amidst ongoing allegations of Russian interference in US elections to Trump's benefit.

Deutschland G 20 Außenministertreffen in Bonn - Sergei Lavrov (picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Smialowski)

Lavrov refuted Russian interference in domestic affairs

When asked about Flynn's ouster, Lavrov echoed previous statements made by Russian officials labeling the turmoil as a strictly American internal affair.

"You should know we do not interfere in the domestic matters of other countries," he said.

After meeting with Tillerson, Lavrov called their discussion "pragmatic," saying that topics addressed included the violence in Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan.

As the G20 ministers' meeting continues on Friday, officials of leading industrialized and emerging economies are expected to discuss sustainable development goals, support for Africa, and how best to identify and prevent future crisis. The meeting in Bonn is a lead-up to the group's July summit of heads of state and government in Hamburg.

Anti-G20 protests

Amid tight security, some 300 protesters from various movements and NGOs also gathered in the western German city of Bonn on Thursday evening to express their displeasure with the leaders' approach to global problems.

As the G20 foreign ministers met behind closed doors at the World Conference Center, protesters marched nearby streets chanting slogans such as "Break the power of the banks and companies!" and "Let's hear it for international solidarity!"

cmb/sms (AFP, Reuters, AP)

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