Nikki Haley, the new US ambassador to the United Nations, took her first turn at the UN Security Council on Thursday and issued a familiar ring directed at Russia.
She was speaking at an emergency meeting of the council about a sudden uptick in violence in eastern Ukraine, amid more than two-year long battles in the region between Ukrainian fighters and Russian-backed separatists.
It is still unclear who reignited the violence around the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka last weekend, but Haley declared that “this crisis will continue” until “Russia and the separatists it supports respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
She issued a “clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions” there. And she said the US continues to condemn and call on Russia to return the peninsula of Crimea to Ukraine.
Haley’s statement amounted to a stark departure from the Trump administration’s rhetoric toward Russia. The Russian aggression has so far been met with silence by President Donald Trump, who has throughout his presidential campaign mused about restoring friendly relations with the nation.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said earlier this week that Trump was “being kept aware” of the developments in Ukraine and that the White House would “have further updates as we go on.”
That Trump has demurred from commenting on the Ukraine violence — even as he risked igniting diplomatic crises with Mexico and Australia last weekend over a border wall and a refugee agreement — likely reflects Trump’s desire to nurture his warming relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But that relationship will be tested as the violence escalates and calls grow from within his own party to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons to fend off Russian aggression.
A shift in tone
In a statement from Belarus on Thursday, Putin seemed to appeal directly to Trump when he said that Ukraine was only accusing Russia of reigniting violence because Kiev supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election and now needed to “present itself as a victim of aggression” to gain sympathy from Trump.
In the early stages of his presidential campaign, Trump appeared sympathetic to Kiev’s battle against separatists armed and funded by Moscow. He even travelled to Ukraine in September 2015 to speak at the Yalta European Strategy Annual Meeting, where he said President Barack Obama “is not doing what he should be doing for the Ukraine,” and condemned Europe for not “leading some of the charge” against Russia’s aggression.
But his tone on Ukraine and Crimea appeared to shift after he hired Paul Manafort to manage his campaign in April 2016, as Politico’s Michael Crowley has reported.
At the end of July, for instance, Trump told ABC that “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also.”
Days earlier, he had told reporters that he “would be looking at” the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea.
Earlier that month, an amendment to the Republican Party’s draft policy on Ukraine proposing that the GOP commit to sending “lethal weapons” to the Ukrainian army to fend off Russian aggression was changed to “provide appropriate assistance.”
The original language — proposed by GOP delegate Diana Denman at a meeting of the party’s national-security subcommittee in Cleveland just before the Republican National Convention last July — was watered down after two Trump campaign representatives asked the chairs of the committee to table the amendment and delay deliberations,according to Denman’s version of events. (?)
One of the representatives, JD Gordon, has denied intervening in the process.
“As the Trump campaign’s national-security policy representative for the GOP convention, I never left my assigned side table, nor spoke publicly at the meeting of delegates during GOP platform hearing,” Gordon told Business Insider in an email. “So yes, Ms. Denham’s [sic] memory of events is inaccurate.”
“Shame on him,” Denman said in a later interview with Business Insider. “There’s no sense in Mr. Gordon scrubbing the truth like this.”
‘I’m calling New York’
A party platform is reflective of a party’s larger priorities and not binding. It is largely forgotten after the conventions end. But many find the document symbolically important: It tells delegates and the larger public “what it means to be” (quote or are we saying?) a Republican or a Democrat, and it lives on via the respective parties’ websites.
Denman, the delegate who proposed amending the platform’s policy on Ukraine to include a call for “lethal weapons” shipment, said that she “tried to be very balanced” when she wrote her plank.
“I understood that, yes, Ukraine is a fledgling democracy. There have been setbacks, there’s corruption. But they’re waving their flag to be free,” Denman said. “I felt that if Ukraine needed resources then America should be willing to give them.”
Denman’s original amendment, which was corroborated by a separate subcommittee member who spoke to Business Insider, called for “maintaining (and, if warranted, increasing) sanctions against Russia until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fully restored,” as well as “providing lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine’s armed forces and greater coordination with NATO on defence planning” to combat “Russia’s ongoing military aggression.”
The amendment seemed consistent with language used by a group of Republican senators as early as 2014, when many in the GOP were actively pressuring the Obama administration to send “anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and small arms” to the Ukrainian army to fend off Russian aggression. A bipartisan coalition in Congress ramped up that pressure in June 2015, and again 18 months later.
“We renew our call for the United States to increase political, economic, and military support for Ukraine,”a bipartisan group of high-profile senators wrote in December 2016. “This includes defensive lethal assistance as part of a broader effort to help Ukrainians better defend themselves, deter future aggression, and implement key structural reforms.”
Denman said she read her amendment aloud at the subcommittee meeting, at which point “two men sitting over to the side of the room — I had no idea who they were, but later found out they were Trump representatives — jumped up and tore over to get behind the three co-chairmen.”
Campaign representatives are allowed to sit in on subcommittee meetings, but they are not permitted to publicly debate the merits of an amendment.
“There was a lot of muted discussion among them,” Denman recalled, “and then the men from the campaign approached me and asked if they could see my plank. So I gave them my copy. They read it, went back up to the chairmen, and the amendment was tabled.”
Gordon, one of the representatives, then left the room to make a phone call, Denman said. Equal parts confused and angry over her proposal being scuttled, Denman said she confronted Gordon about who he was calling.
“I’m calling New York,” Gordon replied, according to Denman.
“I work for Mr. Trump and I have to clear it,” she recalled him saying, apparently in reference to the amendment.
‘This change came from Trump staffers’
Theplatform ultimately passed with a provision to “provide appropriate assistance” to the Ukrainian army rather than provide it with “lethal defence weapons.”
Gordon, in an email, said Denman “sought to significantly elevate the Ukraine-Russia issue beyond the already strong position of RNC and Trump campaign,” so the language had to be watered down.
But a member of the committee present at the meeting, who requested anonymity to discuss the deliberations, said that “the language of Diana’s original amendment didn’t seem strong.”
“It was controversial if you hold Donald Trump’s express views on Russia, but it wasn’t controversial with regard to GOP orthodoxy on the issue,” the committee member said.”This change definitely came from Trump staffers — not from RNC staffers.”
Gordon, one of the staffers, denied that.
“To be clear, all the decisions made in the national security subcommittee of GOP platform week were all made by people in that Cleveland Convention Center room,” Gordon said in an email. “Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Manafort were involved in those sort of details, as they have made clear.”
Manafort — who served as a top adviser to a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine from 2004 to 2012 and helped the Russia-friendly strongman Viktor Yanukovych win the Ukrainian presidency in 2010 — has deniedhaving anything to do with the platform change.
But an unverified dossier presented to Trump, Obama, and Vice President Joe Biden early last month by top US intelligence officials alleges that Trump “agreed to sideline” the issue of Russian intervention in Ukraine during his campaign after Russia promised to feed the emails it stole from prominent Democrats’ inboxes to WikiLeaks.
The dossier also claims Manafort was receiving “kickback payments” from Yanukovych’s associates in Ukraine, where Manafort “had been commercially active … right up to the time (in March 2016) when he joined campaign team.”
Secret ledgers uncovered by an anticorruption center in Kiev and obtained by The New York Times last year revealed that Yanukovych’s political party, the pro-Russia Party of Regions, earmarked $12.7 million in undisclosed cash payments to Manafort — who claimed he never collected the money — for his work from 2007 to 2012.
Yanukovych informed Putin of the payments, the dossier states, on August 15, 2016, after the western media began digging into Manafort’s ties to Ukraine. Putin became “worried” that Yanukovych had sufficiently “covered the traces” of Manafort’s role as a liaison between the Trump campaign and Russia.
For Putin, the dossier states, the money trail “remained a point of potential political vulnerability and embarrassment.”
Manafort resigned four days later, on August 19.
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