Donald Trump’s admission that he would consider recognizing Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula as Russian territory was well received by a Russian lawmaker and Crimea’s Russian-backed leader, who argued it shows Americans want better relations with Russia.
Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, said during a news conference in Florida on Wednesday that he "will be looking at" recognizing Crimea as Russian territory and lifting sanctions placed on Russia in response to its 2014 military invasion in Ukraine.
The United States and the European Union have not recognized Crimea as Russian territory and have rejected the referendum that Moscow claims legitimized the annexation. Russian leaders and entities involved in the military intervention in Ukraine were slapped with international sanctions.
Trump’s remarks, which were overshadowed by his invitation for Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s "missing" personal emails, were criticized by experts. Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute with expertise on Central and Eastern Europe, told the Washington Free Beacon that the comment was "extremely foolish."
Russian state media covered Trump’s statement with responses from officials who said that it reflects a growing desire among Americans for better relations with Russia.
Russian lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev wrote on Facebook that Trump’s comments in favor of improving ties with Russia indicate that "similar sentiment is becoming more and more popular in US, and it can bring political points."
"Trump has repeatedly proven that he, like no one else, understands the public’s demand for a change in course, and the attitudes of a large part of voters who have grown tired of the Clintons and the Bushes," Kosachev wrote, according to Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.
"Only time will tell whether Trump is ready or, which is no less important, capable of implementing this," he added. "It is definitely too early to celebrate."
Sergey Aksyonov, the Russian separatist who now serves as leader of the Crimean Peninsula, responded similarly to Trump’s remarks.
"Trump says only what his voters want to hear. This means there is a desire to improve ties with Russia in American society," Aksyonov wrote, noting that it remains unclear "how he will behave if he wins the election."
"The Crimean people don’t need recognition from Western leaders. We have made our choice once and for all," Aksyonov wrote. "If part of the US political establishment, such as Trump, is ready to recognize the reality, we can only welcome this."
The Kremlin’s official reaction to the comment was more muted. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that the government’s attitude toward Trump had not changed as a result of the admission.
"It seems impossible to draw conclusions on the basis of pre-election rhetoric," Peskov said. "We know perfectly well that candidates say one thing in the heat of election campaign but later after taking office and under a burden of responsibility, the rhetoric changes, becoming more balanced."
Rohac told the Free Beacon that legitimizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea would undermine the United Nations resolution condemning the aggression and align the United States with North Korea, Syria, and other repressive nations that have deemed it legal.
"It would reward Mr. Putin’s brazen aggression," Rohac said. "It would encourage further Russian expansionism in Ukraine and elsewhere Eastern Europe, risk compromising territorial integrity of Eastern countries, and could ultimately lead to international war."
Trump has described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and said he would like to have a good relationship with him should he become president.
"I think he does respect me," Trump said at the press conference on Wednesday. "I hope that we get along great with Putin because it would be great to have Russia with a good relationship."
Trump also said in a New York Times interview that he would only defend a NATO ally from Russian invasion if the member state were meeting its defense spending obligations in the alliance.
Trump loyalists stripped language from the Republican Party’s platform calling for the provision of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine for its continued fight against Russian-backed separatists. As a result, the GOP’s new position on Ukraine resembles the Obama administration’s strategy of responding to Russian aggression in the region with non-lethal aid, which is often criticized as insufficient and weak. The platform does, however, include language supporting continued sanctions against Russia and leaves the door open to increasing them.
"Mr. Trump’s most recent comments about Crimea fit into a consistent pattern of appeasement of Russia and disdain for America’s allies," Rohac said.
"Restoring the credibility of NATO’s commitment to defend its own members ought to be a priority for the next administration, by boosting allied military presence in countries on Europe’s Eastern flank," he said. "Mr. Trump’s proposals, especially his hesitation about the possibility of coming to the defense of Estonia—a reliable ally and NATO member in good standing—would have the exact opposite effect, making the alliance weaker and the world more dangerous."
While Trump has denied having any financial ties to Russia, members of his inner circle have connections to Moscow. Carter Page, one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, worked in Russia as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch and advised the natural gas company Gazprom, which is majority-owned by the Russian government. Page, who has publicly criticized Western foreign policy, described the 2014 Crimean referendum as "democratic" in an essay published online in the Global Policy Journal last year.
Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort also worked as an adviser to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, the Russian-backed leader who was ousted during the 2014 revolution.