WASHINGTON – The White House has said that President Donald Trump fully expects Russia to return control of Crimea to Ukraine.
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, made the remarks at a contentious February 14 news conference that focused largely on the abrupt departure of Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Mr. Spicer said that Mr. Trump had “made it very clear” that he expects Russia to “return Crimea” and reduce violence in eastern Ukraine, where a war between government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman responded to that remark in a conference call with reporters on February 15, saying that Moscow will not discuss the return of Crimea to Ukraine with the United States or any other country.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred to Crimea as Russian territory, saying that “Russia never discusses issues related to its territories with foreign partners, including the United States.”
Mr. Peskov said Mr. Trump did not raise the issue of Crimea in his January 28 telephone conversation with Mr. Putin.
Less that 24 hours before Mr. Spicer’s February 14 briefing, Mr. Flynn had resigned, following news reports that phone calls he held with Russia’s ambassador prior to Mr. Trump’s inauguration included discussions of sanctions imposed by then-President Barack Obama.
The Obama administration hit Russia with several waves of sanctions following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly said he wants better relations with Russia and that he would consider lifting sanctions against Moscow.
Multiple news reports in the past week have said Mr. Flynn specifically mentioned the issue of sanctions in phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak weeks before Mr. Trump’s inauguration on January 20.
Mr. Spicer defended Mr. Trump’s approach to Russia, telling reporters on February 14 that the president “has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea.”
“The irony of this entire situation is that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia. He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration allowed to be seized by Russia,” Mr. Spicer said.
The White House press secretary also pointed to remarks made by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in her first appearance before the Security Council on February 3, in which she forcefully condemned Russia, saying that “Crimea is a part of Ukraine.”
Ambassador Haley said in her remarks that “Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.”
It was not clear whether the ambassador was also referring to sanctions imposed on Russia for its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
One of the phone calls that Mr. Flynn had with Ambassador Kislyak reportedly occurred on December 26, 2016. That was the same day that President Obama announced a new set of sanctions against Russia in retaliation for what U.S. intelligence concluded was a systematic effort using computer hacking and propaganda to influence the presidential election.
With reporting by Reuters and AP.