UNITED NATIONS — At her first appearance at the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, United States Ambassador Nikki Haley took an unexpected hard line on Russia over its “aggressive actions” in eastern Ukraine.
On Sunday, conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists again reignited, despite a ceasefire agreement. Fighting began in Avdiivka, a town just north of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
More than 20 people have reportedly died in the recent strife, while tens of thousands are without heat or water, as winter temperatures in the region fall below freezing.
“We do want to better our relations with Russia, however the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions,” Haley said. “This escalation of violence must stop.”
The former South Carolina governor’s statements appear to complicate the position of the Trump administration, which also on Thursday modified the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia’s FSB intelligence agency.
Those changes, which came days after President Donald Trump spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, would allow U.S. companies to engage in transactions with the agency, and are allegedly intended to make selling mobile devices like phones and tablets easier.
Though some have speculated that this is the beginning of Trump’s plan to ease U.S. sanctions on Russia, Trump insisted before reporters Thursday that he “[hadn’t] eased anything.”
Haley said Thursday that the U.S. will continue to advocate for an end to the occupation of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Until then, she said sanctions imposed against Russia would not be lifted.
The U.S. and the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
Haley’s statements closely mirror those of her predecessor Samantha Power, who criticized at its inception the Russian operation in Ukraine as a “response to an imaginary threat.”
“What is happening today is a dangerous military intervention in Ukraine,” Power said in an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council in March 2014. “It is an act of aggression. It must stop.”
The strong words came in response to Russia’s decision to enter and occupy the Crimean peninsula in eastern Ukraine at the end of February 2014.
Before the occupation began, Ukraine had unspooled into unrest after then-President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of signing an association agreement with the European Union, which had been sought for over a decade. Advocates for the agreement said that it would have opened up new free trade opportunities, financial assistance, and the promise of increased economic cooperation.
Outraged by his refusal to sign the agreement — and his decision to seek closer ties to Russia instead — protesters demanded that Yanukovych step down. Violent clashes followed, and Yanukovych was soon ousted.
It was then that Russia invaded Crimea; weeks after, 97 percent of voters in the region supported a referendum calling for secession from Ukraine, and Putin signed a bill absorbing the peninsula into the Russian Federation. More than 10,000 have now died in the ensuing strife as separatists on the county’s eastern region have battled with Ukrainian government forces.
Will Trump Break With His Party?
Trump has previously said that the U.S. should be more open to working with Russia in its global fight against terrorism. He’s proposed easing sanctions on the country in return for its help, and for the promise that it would cut back on producing nuclear weapons.
“If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?” Trump said to the Wall Street Journal in January.
Though Trump remains committed to the possibility of further U.S.-Russia cooperation, high-ranking members of his party, including Senator John McCain and Senate Majority Leader McConnell, are opposed—with some even calling for legislation that would make the sanctions law, and thus not subject to rescission by executive order.
“I’m against lifting any sanctions on the Russians. These sanctions were imposed because of their behavior in Crimea, eastern Ukraine and now we know they’ve been messing around in our elections as well,” McConnell said in an interview with Politico last Friday. “If there’s any country in the world that doesn’t deserve sanctions relief, it’s Russia.”
Trump’s advisers insist that it is still too early to discuss the plans for Russia. But in addition of the president’s statements, some observers have highlighted the State Department’s delay in condemning the latest violence in Ukraine. A statement released by the Department about the clashes two days after they reignited did not mention Russia. Haley, notably, has a Cabinet ranking but reports to the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who was confirmed on Wednesday.