UNITED NATIONS - The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations took a firm stance Thursday against Russian military action in eastern Ukraine, condemning Moscow's "aggressive actions" and saying U.S. Crimea-related sanctions would remain in place.
"I must condemn the aggressive actions of Russia," Nikki Haley told the U.N. Security Council at her first public meeting since being confirmed last week as President Donald Trump's U.N. envoy.
"We do want better relations with Russia," Haley said. "However, the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions."
Haley said that U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula would remain in place until control of that territory was returned to Kyiv.
"The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea," Haley said. "Crimea is a part of Ukraine."
During the months-long presidential campaign, Trump expressed admiration for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and there are questions about whether Russia interfered in the U.S. election in order to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. These developments left many foreign policy observers wondering whether the Trump administration would take a hard line on Moscow. Haley's comments appeared to indicate the administration is not prepared to pursue improved relations with Moscow at any price.
Easing of some restrictions
Earlier Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced it was easing some restrictions on business transactions with the Russian FSB security service, despite cybersanctions put in place by former President Barack Obama.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said the move did not mean the United States was easing sanctions on Russia.
Fighting has escalated in recent days in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatist militias and the Ukrainian security forces. Thousands of civilians have been left without water, electricity and heat in subzero temperatures, worsening an already difficult humanitarian situation.
Stephen O'Brien, undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the council that the severe damage to critical infrastructure was putting thousands of civilian lives in great peril.
"For civilians living on both sides of the front line, this means they are not only traumatized, living in a precarious and dangerous existence, but damage to critical services is making survival an issue," he said.
Security Council members called Thursday for an immediate cease-fire, implementation of the Minsk agreement — a February 2015 accord aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine — and unhindered access in the area for monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Ukrainian Ambassador Volodymyr Yelchencko said his government was fully committed to entirely implementing the Minsk agreement, saying Ukrainian forces were under strict orders to open fire only in response to fire from the Russian-backed militias.
Yelchencko called for an enhanced international security presence on the ground in eastern Ukraine to prevent what he called Russian provocation.