Photographer: Aleksey Filippov/AFP via Getty Images

Trump Troubled by Ukraine Fighting, Watching Russian Response

  • Pence says continued sanctions will depend on actions ahead
  • eaders raise prospect of cooperation with Russia on terrorism

The Trump administration is “very troubled” by an escalation in fighting in eastern Ukraine and is watching how Russia responds in the months ahead to make a determination about U.S. sanctions, Vice President Mike Pence said.

Pence commented in an interview on ABC News’ “This Week” broadcast on Sunday, a day after President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart discussed concerns about the fighting and talked about bolstering the strategic partnership between their countries, according to a readout of the conversation.

“We’re watching,” Pence said on ABC. “And very troubled by the increased hostilities over the past week in eastern Ukraine.”

Pence noted that Trump spoke about Ukraine with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 28. He said the question of whether sanctions on Russia remain in place if it continues to violate the cease-fire in Ukraine will depend on Russia’s actions and the opportunity to work together on matters such as defeating Islamic State.

“It just simply all depends on whether or not we see the kind of changes in posture by Russia and the opportunity perhaps to work on common interests,” Pence said. 

‘Lot of Killers’

Trump has sent mixed signals on Russia, on the one hand questioning actions in Ukraine while on the other praising Putin and raising the prospects of cooperating with Russia in the fight against terrorism. During a Fox News interview scheduled to air before Sunday’s Super Bowl, Trump said he respects Putin and downplayed a characterization of him by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly as “a killer.”

“We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?” Trump said, according to a excerpt released by the network. “I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not. And if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS, which is a major fight, and Islamic terrorism all over the world -- major fight, that’s a good thing.”

Intense fighting has taken place between government troops and pro-Russian separatists near Ukraine’s Russian border over the past week, the latest episode in a crisis that began when Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. Both sides have deployed heavy artillery, and the rebels are using Russian-made drones to aid artillery spotters, according to a spokesman for Ukraine’s presidential administration.

Read more: A QuickTake on Ukraine’s bloody standoff with Ukraine

Rebels continued to fire with a range of heavy weaponry on Saturday, though the number of attacks fell and only one government serviceman was wounded, Ukraine’s military said on Facebook.

Closer Ties

During his conversation with Trump on Saturday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for boosting dialogue and economic ties with the U.S. and discussed a potential visit to Washington, Svyatoslav Tsegolko, Poroshenko’s press secretary, said in a Facebook post.

In a summary, the White House said Trump had a “very good call” with Poroshenko that included a discussion of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. “We will work with Ukraine, Russia and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border,” Trump said.

Statements Trump made during and after the 2016 campaign have raised questions about how the new president and his security team will respond. Trump has indicated he’d be willing to consider easing sanctions imposed on Russia in exchange for cooperation in the fight against Islamic State terrorists in Syria and Iraq.

Nikki Haley

Over the last week, however, the new administration appeared to be taking a tougher approach. A signal that the U.S. was standing by its pre-Trump position came when the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations used her first speech to the UN Security Council to pledge that sanctions will be maintained.

“We do want to better our relations with Russia,” ambassador Nikki Haley told the world body on Feb. 2. “However, the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions. The United States stands with the people of Ukraine who have suffered for nearly three years under Russian occupation and military intervention.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer told MSNBC on Feb. 3 that Trump, in conversations with Putin, is “going to make it very clear what his position is, not just with respect to Ukraine, but with respect to our entire geopolitical landscape and our national security interests.”

Sanctions imposed on Russia because of its occupation of Crimea “are going to stay in place until they withdraw,” Spicer said.

That puts the White House closer to lawmakers such as Senator Marco Rubio. The Florida Republican said Sunday on Twitter that the “only reason we should ever lift sanctions on Putin is if he meets conditions of sanctions & ends violations of Ukraine sovereignty.”

Private Assurances

Politico reported that Trump had given former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko private assurances on sanctions, a stronger position than the president has taken publicly. Tymoshenko was said to have spoken with Trump during an aside at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 1.

Citing the timing of the latest rebel offensive, which began a day after Trump spoke by phone with Putin, Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned Trump this week that Russia was testing the new president.

McCain urged Trump to provide Ukraine with lethal aid to help the country battle the rebels, a move that would go further than the previous administration. The Obama administration supplied only non-lethal equipment and medical supplies to Ukrainian government forces.

— With assistance by Jennifer Epstein

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