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Secretary Of State Tillerson Plans To Visit Russia But Skip NATO Meeting In April

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's travel schedule is raising some questions in Europe. His aides say he plans to skip a NATO foreign ministers meeting next month, but he does plan to go to Russia. The State Department says he'll have many opportunities to meet his European counterparts before his visit to Moscow in April. But NPR's Michele Kelemen reports that's not entirely putting Europeans at ease.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: This year's spring meeting at NATO headquarters coincides with the expected visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to the U.S., so Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is planning to send a career diplomat, Tom Shannon, to Brussels to stand in for him. State Department Spokesman Mark Toner in his telephone briefing today said NATO shouldn't read anything into this.

MARK TONER: The United States remains a hundred percent committed to NATO.

KELEMEN: To head off further criticism, though, Toner says the U.S. is offering some other dates if NATO is willing to reschedule. He also points out that all the NATO foreign ministers are here in Washington for Tillerson's anti-ISIS conference.

TONER: He will have an opportunity to do pull-asides with many of these countries.

KELEMEN: Those brief encounters, though, are not the same as a formal NATO meeting, says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She was on Capitol Hill today to brief a House panel on America's role in the world.

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MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: It's a most unfortunate signal. I would blame it on schedulers. He will have met with a lot of the ministers in other venues. But given the discussion that's going on about NATO, I think that it is an unfortunate scheduling problem.

KELEMEN: President Trump once called the military alliance obsolete, and he's complained on Twitter that allies including Germany are not paying their fair share. Former U.S. ambassador and former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow says it's rare for a secretary of state to skip such a meeting.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: It's not just about spending. It's about the roles and the missions of NATO and dealing with the Russian challenge, Middle Eastern instability, ISIS. So there's a lot to talk about in a NATO context.

KELEMEN: And that's important before Tillerson goes to Russia, says Vershbow, who's now at the Atlantic Council.

VERSHBOW: It's vitally important to have a full consultation with your allies on how you see the Russia challenge and how you propose to deal with it 'cause I think it's essential that you engage with Russia based on a unified NATO position.

KELEMEN: Congressman Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, says the trip to Russia will feed concerns that the Trump administration is, quote, "too cozy with Vladimir Putin." The FBI confirmed this week that it's investigating possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia as part of a broader look at Russia's meddling in last year's election. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.