The Trump administration on Wednesday maintained a low-key approach to the latest flare-up of violence in eastern Ukraine, where the government accuses Russian-backed forces of stepping up attacks. The restrained tone may reflect the start of a new U.S. approach to dealing with Russia's cross-border activity, even as top U.S. officials are pledging to support Ukraine's sovereignty.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer had little to say on Wednesday when asked for the administration's position on the renewed fighting that began over the weekend and persisted into early Wednesday. At least 10 people have been killed and dozens wounded. President Donald Trump has been “kept aware of developments” in Ukraine, Spicer said, and the White House will “have further updates as we go on.” It was not immediately clear when those updates would come.
The new rhetoric comes amid significant concern in Europe about Trump's overtures to Russia. The new president has called NATO “obsolete” and challenged America's allies to take on greater responsibility for defending themselves, while raising the possibility of a new era of U.S.-Russian cooperation.
On Tuesday, the State Department responded to the violence in Ukraine but omitted any mention of Russia in a six-sentence statement that called for an immediate cease-fire and full implementation of the agreements meant to outline a political resolution to the crisis. Trump's U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, met with her Ukrainian counterpart “to reaffirm the United States' support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” according to a statement.
The omission of Russia from the responses contrasted sharply with statements by the Obama administration, which sharply criticized Moscow for supporting and even directing attacks by the separatists, and not fulfilling its obligations under the 2015 truce plan signed in Minsk, Belarus.
The State Department statement reaffirmed U.S. backing for the Minsk plan, but that reference only came about after internal interagency discussions in Washington. According to an American official with knowledge of the discussions, White House officials questioned why the Minsk agreements needed to be mentioned at all even though the U.S. has insisted for almost two years on the deal's full implementation. The official wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity.
Change in tone
“The United States is deeply concerned with the recent spike in violence in eastern Ukraine,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in the statement. “To avert a larger humanitarian crisis, we call for an immediate, sustained cease-fire and full and unfettered access for OSCE monitors. We also reaffirm U.S. support for full implementation of the Minsk agreements.”
During the last surge in violence in December, former State Department spokesman John Kirby had gone far further, accusing Moscow of backing “a Russian separatist attempt to seize additional Ukrainian territory.”
In his December 20 statement, Kirby said Russia was violating its commitments and urged Moscow to use its influence over the separatists to stop the violence.
And in the Obama administration's last days, then-White House spokesman Josh Earnest specifically criticized Russia for misrepresenting its activities in Ukraine, saying its public pronouncements “routinely fly in the face of the facts on the ground” there and in Syria.
At his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Trump's incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a similarly stern line despite his close business ties with Russia stemming from his days as ExxonMobil CEO. He said Russia posed a “danger” and had “invaded” Ukraine, and that he would have recommended a far more robust response than Obama mounted after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
New Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA chief Mike Pompeo also had tough words for Moscow.
Obama era officials as well as many in Europe are concerned about a possible shift in U.S. policy toward Russia, particularly as it relates to Ukraine and the potential for a lifting of sanctions on Moscow before the situation is resolved.
On Tuesday, European Union President Donald Tusk mentioned Russia's “aggressive policy towards Ukraine” along with “worrying declarations by the new American administration.” He accused the Trump administration of “seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy.