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    Tillerson says US expected Putin’s denial about meddling

    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) on Sunday in Kiev.
    Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press
    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (right) on Sunday in Kiev.

    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Ukraine to reaffirm support for the former Soviet republic two days after the first meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

    The Associated Press reported that Tillerson said that he and Trump didn’t expect anything other than a denial from Putin that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election when they all met in Germany.

    Tillerson said Trump’s conversation with Putin on election meddling went ‘‘about the way we expected’’ and that the most important thing is to make sure it never happens again.

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    He was asked, but did not answer directly, if Trump had accepted Putin’s denial as Russian officials have claimed. Tillerson was the only other American official in the room when Trump and Putin met on Friday.

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    But Tillerson said he didn’t believe the US and Russia would ever come to a common understanding of what happened.

    And little was disclosed about Trump and Putin’s discussions on Ukraine, which has been locked for more than three years in a conflict with its neighbor over the annexation of Crimea and Russian backing for an insurgency.

    “I’ve been very clear in my discussions with Russian leadership on more than one occasion that it is necessary for Russia to take the first steps to de-escalate the situation in the east part of Ukraine,” Tillerson told reporters in Kiev Sunday after meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “We call on Russia to honor its commitments” and “exercise influence over the separatists in the region.”

    US support has been key to Ukraine containing the conflict in its easternmost regions and rebuilding its economy following a second pro-democracy revolution in a decade. While President Obama’s administration provided diplomatic, financial and non-lethal military backing, Trump suggested during his election campaign that he may relax US sanctions imposed on Russia over Ukraine and may even recognize Crimea.

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    Tillerson said sanctions against Russia will stay in place until peace accords are implemented. Trump tweeted Sunday that he didn’t discuss sanctions with Putin and that “nothing will be done until the Ukrainian and Syrian problems are solved.”

    Trump, who met Poroshenko in Washington in June, sought before his meeting with Putin to alleviate concerns that he’d be too accommodating. During a trip to Warsaw on the eve of the G-20, Trump urged Russia to “to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere.” He also explicitly backed NATO’s collective-defense commitment and promised more energy supplies for Poland as eastern Europe seeks to avoid an over-reliance on Russian natural gas.

    Tillerson on Friday appointed Kurt Volker, a former ambassador to NATO and National Security Council director, to be special representative for Ukraine.

    “We are going to change the status quo because continuing to leave things the way they are is simply not acceptable,” Tillerson said. “We have to reinvigorate these talks to move forward, and that is the purpose of our engagement and the purpose of Ambassador’s Volker appointment.” Volker will spend several days in Kiev for talks, Poroshenko told the same news conference.

    Discussions to revive a stalled peace accord for Ukraine are also held with the participation of Germany and France, as well as Ukraine and Russia. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron held talks with Putin on Ukraine Saturday. Leaders will “most likely” hold talks by phone this month, which will be followed by a summit, Poroshenko said.