Russian-backed separatists proclaim a new state in Ukraine

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is calling on Moscow to de-escalate Russia-backed conflict in east Ukraine, warning sanctions will remain, while the White House is moving to retreat from punishments imposed on the Kremlin for crimes and conspiracies.

Tillerson said “it is necessary for Russia to take the first step to de-escalate the situation in the east part of Ukraine” by pulling forces back to lines agreed upon two years ago under the Minsk Agreement.

“We are disappointed by the lack of progress under the Minsk agreement,” he said at a joint briefing with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — who is viewed as an enemy by Russian leaders in Moscow — after they held talks. “We do call on Russia to honor its commitments.”

Separatists in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday proclaimed a new state that aspires to include not only the areas they control but also the rest of the country. But Russia, their chief backer, sought to play down the announcement, saying it was merely part of public discussion.

The surprise announcement in the rebel stronghold of Donetsk casts further doubt on the 2015 cease-fire deal that was supposed to stop fighting in Ukraine’s industrial heartland and bring those areas back into Kiev’s fold while granting them wide autonomy. Some rebels said they have no intention of joining the new state.

When Poroshenko visited the White House the same day as the announcement, he did not get the traditional ceremonies that greet a foreign leader meeting with the president. Instead, Poroshenko was scheduled to “drop by” a meeting with President Donald Trump and national security adviser H.R. McMaster during a visit with Vice President Mike Pence.

While the Trump administration gave a muted response to the latest crisis, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, released a strong statement:

“Vladimir Putin’s ambition to restore the Russian Empire took another step forward today as Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk region proclaimed an independent state and adopted the tsarist-era name of ‘Little Russia.’ The ultimate responsibility for this latest flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty lies squarely with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, upon whose leadership, financing, troops, and weapons the separatists are entirely dependent,” said McCain.

“This illegal proclamation of a Russian puppet state in eastern Ukraine also adds to Russia’s serial violations of the Minsk agreements,” said McCain. “Through its aggressive behavior, Russia has demonstrated it does not seek the peace the Minsk agreements were designed to achieve. Instead, Vladimir Putin is calculating that the more Ukrainians his forces and his proxies kill, the more Ukrainian territory they will be able to seize.”

“And the more Putin forces Ukraine to devote scarce resources to war rather than improving the economy, the more he can destabilize the government in Kiev and prevent Ukraine from realizing its Euro-Atlantic future,” said McCain. “The United States and our European allies must honestly confront the reality that we have failed to fundamentally change Russia’s calculus in Ukraine over the last three years.”

“If we are serious about ending the bloodletting in eastern Ukraine and restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, we must be willing to think and act anew to compel a change in Russian behavior,” said McCain. “It is simply not enough, for example, to say that U.S. and European sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea will remain until Russia fulfills its obligations under the Minsk agreements. That approach has been tried, and it has failed. Acting together, the United States and our European allies need to develop a policy and strategy to escalate the diplomatic, economic, and military consequences Russia will suffer until it honors its commitments under the Minsk agreements. Here at home, we must start by sending a strong Russia sanctions bill to the president’s desk and providing Ukraine the defensive lethal assistance it needs to defend itself.”

Trump administration officials pressed State Department staffers to develop plans for removing sanctions against Russia almost immediately after President Trump took office in January, according to reports published last month.

In turn, State Department employees tried to convince lawmakers to codify the sanctions put in place in response to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine and it’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Meanwhile, White House aide Sebastian Gorka recently said the Trump administration is weighing returning two Russian compounds in the U.S. seized by former President Barack Obama.

“We want to give collaboration, cooperation, a chance. The fact is we may not share the same philosophy, we may not share the same type of statesman view of the world, but the fact is there are some issues of common concern,” Gorka said in response to questions about why Trump would consider handing the diplomatic compounds back.

That dust up comes as it was revealed that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a second, previously undisclosed conversation during a dinner for G20 leaders at a summit earlier this month in Germany, a White House official confirmed on Tuesday.

The two leaders held a formal two-hour bilateral meeting on July 7, after which Trump said Putin denied that he directed efforts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Shortly after, Trump announced he was ending a CIA program to support rebels in Syria who are fighting against Russian-ally Bashar al-Assad, president of that war torn country.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement drew immediate reaction, much of which suggested the US has resigned from its place as “leader of the free world.”

More than 10,000 people have died in fighting since Russia-backed rebels took control of parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions in April 2014 after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The rebels originally sought to join Russia but the Kremlin stopped short of annexing the area or publicizing its military support for the rebels.

Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko said in comments broadcast on Russian television that rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk as well as representatives of other Ukrainian regions would form a state called Malorossiya.

Most of the areas which are currently part of Ukraine were referred to as Malorossiya, or Little Russia, when they were part of the Russian Empire.

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