President Trump will retain former President Barack Obama's sanctions on Russia until the former Soviet power withdraws from Ukrainian territory, according to his top ambassador at the United Nations.
"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," Nikki Haley said in her first remarks at the United Nations Security Council. "Eastern Ukraine, of course, is not the only part of the country suffering because of Russia's aggressive actions. Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine."
That statement doesn't preclude the possibility of reversing the sanctions Obama imposed in response to the 2016 cyberattacks against the Democratic party, but it should nonetheless reassure members of Congress and European allies who worried that Trump might abandon the sanctions. Russia and Russian-backed separatists have been trying to recapture a major Ukrainian city through an assault that began the same day that Trump spoke to Putin, making Haley's announcement even more significant symbolic event.
"While I respect the new president's right to conduct the foreign policy that he sees as beneficial to the U.S., I would urge strong caution against reversing any sanctions on Russia without concrete concessions," Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the civilian leader of NATO from 2009 to 2014 and a former prime minister of Denmark, said last week, as rumors swirled that Trump had a plan to lift the sanctions. "Easing sanctions will only embolden Russia's aggression in the region, putting the security interests of Ukraine and the United States in jeopardy."
Haley's statement stakes out a harder line than some of Trump's congressional allies, by insisting on a withdrawal from Ukraine. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., called for Trump to let Russian forces remain in Crimea due to the pro-Russian sentiment in that region as part of a deal that would include withdrawal from the eastern part of the country.
"I would hope that our president removes those sanctions and tells President Putin that we're going to start all over again," Rohrabacher, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, told the Washington Examiner the day before Trump's conversation with Putin. "He's not going to call it a reset, because that's become a cliche, but we're going to take away these sanctions and build a whole new relationship which facilitates working together to attain mutually-beneficial goals — rather than the current policy, which is unending hostility and belligerence toward Russia, no matter what it does."
Haley was far more critical. "I must condemn the aggressive actions of Russia," she said. "It is unfortunate because it is a replay of far too many instances over many years in which United States representatives have needed to do that," she said.