VIENNA — The gulf between the United States and Russia showed no signs of narrowing Thursday, as top diplomats from the two countries faced off over a proposed U.N. peacekeeping force in Ukraine.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson vowed that there will be no easing of sanctions on Russia or warming of relations until Moscow stops supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine and abandons the "apparent annexation" of Crimea.
"We can have differences in other areas, but when one country invades another, that is a difference that is hard to look past or to reconcile," Tillerson told reporters at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a group created during the Cold War to encourage dialogue between East and West.
"And we've made this clear to Russia from the very beginning, that we must address Ukraine," he said. "It stands as the single most difficult obstacle to us re-normalizing a relationship with Russia, which we badly would like to do."
The 57-member OSCE is one of the few regional organizations in which both the United States and Russia are members. U.S. officials had hoped it would provide a venue to discuss modifications to a Russian proposal for a U.N. peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, more than 10,000 people have died in the war between Ukraine's government and Russian-backed separatists.
The United States and its allies want peacekeepers to have a broad mission to protect about 600 OSCE monitors currently on the ground and investigate cease-fire violations throughout eastern Ukraine.
They worry that a more limited mission of just protecting the monitors, as Russia has proposed, would effectively lock in territorial gains by the Russian-speaking separatists, who want to break away from Ukraine.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a long and grievance-filled speech to the OSCE, said an expanded mandate would be akin to an occupation.
"It is deeply troubling to try to wrap up the substantive consideration of the Russian draft Security Council resolution on the establishment of a U.N. mission to promote and protect the observers in strict accordance with their mandate," Lavrov said. "In return, ideas are proposed that are equivalent to the introduction of an occupation administration in the Donbas to bury the measures approved by the Security Council and resolve the issue by force." He was referring to the Donets Basin region of eastern Ukraine.
In his own speech to the OSCE, Tillerson said civilian deaths and cease-fire violations have risen dramatically over the past year. He noted that an American OSCE paramedic working with an observer group was killed in a land-mine explosion in April.
His words about Russia were unstinting.
"We should be clear about the source of this violence," Tillerson said. "Russia is arming, leading, training and fighting alongside anti-government forces.
"We call on Russia and its proxies to end the harassment, intimidation and its attacks on the OSCE special monitoring mission," he added.
Tillerson said the United States is focusing its diplomatic efforts on eastern Ukraine because that's where civilians are dying. But that does not mean the United States acknowledges that Crimea is now a part of Russia, which annexed the peninsula in early 2014 before the conflict expanded into eastern Ukraine around the Donbas region.
"We will never accept Russia's occupation and attempted annexation of Crimea," Tillerson said. "Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns full control of the peninsula to Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine, we join our European partners in maintaining sanctions until Russia withdraws its forces from the Donbas."
Lavrov used the OSCE meeting to lambaste the United States and NATO. He accused the NATO countries and the United States of undermining security in Eastern Europe.
"The building of NATO's potential on the eastern flank, the course toward the unconditional expansion of the alliance, the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Europe, significantly undermines the principles of indivisibility and security," Lavrov said.
He also made a clear reference to accusations that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and other elections throughout Europe — charges that Russia has consistently denied. He called for confidence-building measures to ensure cybersecurity, "rather than shaking the air with unsubstantiated allegations, without a single fact."
Both Tillerson and Lavrov made their sharp remarks before they sat down to meet in the late afternoon. Neither said anything to reporters, beyond Lavrov's claim to a reporter who shouted questions loudly and clearly, "I can't hear you."