Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday accused Russia of using "malicious tactics" against the United States and European allies, including election interference, poisoning relations to a low reminiscent of the Cold War.
In a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, Tillerson cited a litany of Russia's bad behavior, including invasions of neighboring Georgia and Ukraine, its energy policy, cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to undermine democratic elections. He said the country's actions "are not the behaviors of a responsible nation."
"Our transatlantic unity is meant to convey to the Russian government that we will not stand for this flagrant violation of democratic norms," Tillerson said of Russia's continued support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. U.S. sanctions put in place to punish Russia over annexing Crimea and its involvement in Ukraine, he said, "will remain in place until Russia reverses the actions that triggered them."
Tillerson called attempts to "reset" relations between Moscow and Washington elusive.
"I told Russia, we're never going to get the relationship back to normal until we address Ukraine," said Tillerson, who was awarded Russia's Order of Friendship while he ran ExxonMobil. "It just sits there as an obstacle."
The stern language Tillerson employed against Russia came in a speech that was meant to soothe worried Europeans in advance of his trip to the continent next week. Many allies remain uncertain about the Trump administration's commitments to their security, even though President Trump has softened his positions since early in his term when he questioned whether NATO countries were pulling their weight in defending themselves.
"Our security commitments to Europe are ironclad," Tillerson said, calling the NATO treaty's mutual defense commitment "the best mechanism we have to deter aggression." He said the United States will be the first to respond if a NATO ally is attacked, as Europe supported the United States after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
But Tillerson also echoed Trump's insistence that NATO nations must increase their defense spending to 2 percent of their budgets. Tillerson acknowledged the harsh reviews that accompanied Trump's criticism of NATO spending and priorities, but he suggested it drove the point home.
"The president's message was that we are committed to the alliance; you need to get as committed to it as we are."
In his remarks about Russia, Tillerson expressed a harder line than the president he serves. Trump has repeatedly questioned whether Russia was involved in leaked emails and the spread of false, often conspiratorial articles that permeated many websites before last year's election.
"Russia has often employed malicious tactics against the United States and Europe to drive us apart, weaken our confidence and undermine our economic successes since the end of the Cold War," Tillerson said.
In his visit to Europe next week, Tillerson said he plans to stress the importance of historical alliances and underscore that the United States cannot confront all of the threats it faces on its own.
"These alliances were forged in shared blood and shared sacrifices — unlike many of our adversaries, who can count their allies on less than the fingers on one hand," he said.
Tillerson singled out one NATO ally whose relationship with the United States has grown strained: Turkey. The presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met recently to discuss ways to advance peace in Syria, and the three regional neighbors have grown closer. Tillerson allowed that Turkey cannot "ignore" Iran and Russia but suggested Ankara give more priority to its NATO allies.
"Iran and Russia cannot offer the Turkish people the economic benefits" that the West can, he said.