• U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (Photo : Getty Images)

Two former U.S. officials, who refused to be named, criticized U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his plans to skip the scheduled meeting with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on April 5-6 and instead meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and later fly to Russia later in the month, Reuters reported on Monday, March 20.

Like Us on Facebook

The U.S. officials said that Tillerson is intentionally skipping his first meeting with 28 NATO members to be with U.S. President Donald Trump for talks with the Chinese leader on April 6-7 at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

According to the U.S. officials, U.S. allies may perceive Tillerson's move to skip the meeting and visit Moscow as a move by the U.S. to prioritize big powers over smaller nations.

Tillerson had previously worked with Russia's government as Exxon executive but has questioned U.S. sanctions against Russia, saying it could harm U.S. businesses.

The two U.S officials said that Tillerson will visit Moscow on April 12. Meanwhile, State Department spokesman Mark Toner had no immediate comment on Tillerson's trip to Russia or his plan to skip the NATO meeting.

"It feeds this narrative that somehow the Trump administration is playing footsy with Russia," said one former U.S. official.

"You don't want to do your early business with the world's great autocrats. You want to start with the great democracies, and NATO is the security instrument of the transatlantic group of great democracies," he added.

According to the report, the public is carefully scrutinizing any visit to Russia by a senior official of the Trump administration as the FBI said on Monday, March 20, that it is looking into any complicity between the Russian government and Trump's election campaign.

NATO allies have been upset when Trump referred to the alliance as "obsolete" and for pressuring other members to commit at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense.

Last week, British officials were disappointed when Trump dismissed media reports that former President Obama tapped his phones during the elections, with the help of Britain's spy agency. Britain had strongly denied the claim.

A former NATO diplomat said he hoped that Tillerson could attend both meetings, by changing the date of the NATO talks.

The former diplomat said that the meeting is significant since it would enable members to present a united front toward Moscow.

"Given the challenge that Russia poses, not just to the United States but to Europe, it's critical to engage on the basis of a united front if at all possible," the diplomat said.