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  • Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stand together at the OSCE ForeignMinisters in Vienna, Austria, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.(AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Thursday, December 07, 2017 8:30 am

Tillerson: US, Russia could normalize ties but for Ukraine

JOSH LEDERMAN | Associated Press

VIENNA – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held up the Ukraine crisis Thursday as the sole issue keeping the United States and Russia from forging a closer relationship, arguing that all other disputes are secondary.

"The issue that stands in the way is Ukraine," Tillerson said.

President Donald Trump campaigned on the need to improve ties with Russia, Tillerson said in Vienna, adding that "normalizing" the relationship was something the U.S. still "badly would like to do." He said that from the start, the Trump administration had told Moscow that addressing Ukraine was the key to easing conflict between the two nuclear powers.

Tillerson's diagnosis of the problem was striking in its downplaying of other key disputes, particularly Russia's meddling in the U.S. presidential election. U.S. intelligence agencies including the CIA and FBI have concluded the Kremlin interfered in the election in an effort to help Trump and hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Yet Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on that assessment, amid a special counsel probe into whether members of his campaign colluded with the Russian effort.

Tillerson insisted the U.S. could never overlook Russia's invasion of Ukraine and "attempted annexation" of the Crimean peninsula.

"We can have differences in other arenas, in Syria, we can have differences in other areas," Tillerson said. "But when one country invades another, that is a difference that is hard to look past or to reconcile."