EXCLUSIVE-Tillerson plans to skip NATO meeting, visit Russia in April -sources


(Adds U.S. comment, congressional reaction, U.S. declined NATO
offer to change meeting dates, paragraphs 5-10, 18)
    By Arshad Mohammed and John WalcottWASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) - U.S. 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, U.S. officials
said on Monday, disclosing an itinerary that allies may see as
giving Moscow priority over them.
    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 U.S. officials said.
    Skipping the NATO meeting and visiting Moscow could risk
feeding a perception that Trump may be putting U.S. dealings
with big powers first, while leaving waiting those smaller
nations that depend on Washington for security, two former U.S.
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 <XOM.N>, and has questioned the
wisdom of sanctions against Russia that he said could harm U.S.
businesses. [nL1N1F01XW]
    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 was due to have
arrived in Washington on Monday for a three-day visit that was
to include talks with U.S. Defense 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 U.S. 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 U.S.
House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, said that
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.
    "I cannot fathom why the Administration would pursue this
course except to signal a change in American foreign policy that
draws our country away from western democracy's most important
institutions and aligns the United States more closely with the
autocratic regime in the Kremlin," he added.
    A former U.S. official echoed the view.
    "It feeds this narrative that somehow the Trump
administration is playing footsie with Russia," said the former
U.S. official on condition of anonymity.
    "You don't want to do your early business with the world's
great autocrats. You want to start with the great democracies,
and NATO is the security instrument of the transatlantic group
of great democracies," he added.
    Any Russian visit by a senior Trump administration official
may be carefully scrutinized after the director of the Federal
Bureau of Investigation on Monday publicly confirmed his agency
was investigating any collusion between the Russian government
and Trump's 2016 presidential election campaign. [nL2N1GX08N]
    Trump has already worried NATO allies by referring to the
Western security alliance as "obsolete" and by pressing other
members to meet their commitments to spend at least 2 percent of
gross domestic product on defense.
    Last week, he dismayed British officials by shrugging off a
media report, forcefully denied by Britain, that the
administration of former President Barack Obama tapped his
phones during the 2016 White House race with the aid of
Britain's GCHQ spy agency. [nL5N1GU2O2]
    A former U.S. official and a former NATO diplomat, both
speaking on condition of anonymity, said the alliance offered to
change the meeting dates so Tillerson could attend it and the Xi
Jinping talks but the State Department had rebuffed the idea.
    The former diplomat said it was vital to present a united
front toward Moscow. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was
created in 1949 to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.
    "Given the challenge that Russia poses, not just to the
United States but to Europe, it's critical to engage on the
basis of a united front if at all possible," the diplomat said.

 (Additional Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Writing by Arshad
Mohammed; Editing by Lisa Shumaker & Simon Cameron-Moore)
 ((arshad.mohammed@thomsonreuters.com; +1 202 898 8300; Reuters
Messaging: arshad.mohammed.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))


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