Russian Black Sea Missile-Artillery Forces take up positions on the Crimean coast (Bal and Bastion-P)

BRUSSELS: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday he would hold talks with NATO allies about “Russia’s aggression in Ukraine”, signalling a tougher stance toward Moscow from the Trump administration.

“We want to have a discussion around NATO’s posture in Europe, most particularly in eastern Europe in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere,” Tillerson said upon arriving in Brussels for his first NATO talks.

Tillerson joined the talks listing the Trump administration’s top priority as pushing NATO allies to meet their pledges to boost defence spending as Washington says it has borne a “disproportionate” share of the costs for too long.

State Department officials said Tillerson would work with NATO allies to press Russia to fulfil its obligations under the Minsk agreements to end the war in eastern Ukraine.

Tillerson’s remarks appeared likely to ease concerns that U.S. President Donald Trump is more interested in cultivating ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin than in shoring up the 28-nation alliance against a more assertive Moscow.

Allies have been alarmed at the prospect of Trump seeking to improve relations with the Kremlin at the expense of support for the pro-Western government in Ukraine and NATO allies in former Soviet parts of eastern Europe.

Their concerns were reinforced when Tillerson initially planned to skip the NATO meeting, citing various commitments including a trip to Russia.

But the former Exxon oil executive, who has friendly ties with Putin, agreed to attend when NATO rescheduled the meeting for Friday.

Russia in 2014 annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

A senior NATO official told reporters on condition of anonymity that the Trump administration was now taking a more “mainstream” approach to the alliance and anxiety among allies had eased.

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