WASHINGTON, April 13 - US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent question about why Ukraine matters to U.S. taxpayers was misinterpreted and was rather used as a “rhetorical device,” a State Department official told Business Insider on Thursday.
Tillerson earlier this week asked his European counterparts during a G7 meeting in Italy why "American taxpayers" should care about Ukraine, France’s foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said.
The comment signaled to some, including Ayrault, that Tillerson did not think the US should concern itself with the ongoing war in Ukraine and Russian aggression there.
But the official said the comment was misinterpreted.
"Tillerson asked the question as a rhetorical device, then proceeded to answer the question of why it did in fact matter to American taxpayers," the official said, without elaborating further on what Tillerson did say about Ukraine.
Ayrault said he told Tillerson that "it is in the interests of the US taxpayers to have a Europe that is secure and is strong politically and economically. ... You don't want a weak Europe, broken into bits and feeble.”
Tillerson’s comment, even if it were misinterpreted, likely hit a nerve with his European counterparts. Europe has been on high alert since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting Ukrainian separatists.
"Russia's behavior is not consistent with the rules-based international order," the Group of 7 industrialized nations wrote in a statement after the meeting ended. "We remain united in using a wide array of foreign policy tools, including restrictive measures and sanctions, with the goal of persuading Russia to return to a path of shared respect of those principles."
President Donald Trump's comments along the campaign trail about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) being obsolete, and Tillerson's friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin while he was the CEO of ExxonMobil, did nothing to ease fears in Europe that Russia's aggression would go unchallenged.
Trump appeared to reverse his stance on NATO, however, after meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stolenberg on Wednesday.
"NATO is not obsolete," Trump said, adding that he had approved of Montenegro's accession into the organization in a move likely to infuriate the Russians.
Tillerson's relationship with Russia, meanwhile, has soured amid revelations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally, dropped chemical weapons on civilians in Idlib province last week. Russia had either been "complicit or simply incompetent," Tillerson said last week, in failing to hold up its end of a 2013 deal to destroy Assad's declared chemical-weapons stockpile. (bi/ez)