Donald Trump repeatedly and forcefully denied on Wednesday that his campaign has any connection to the Russian government. He also suggested that the hacking of Democratic National Committee email servers and the release of documents embarrassing to Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton -- acts widely attributed to Kremlin-affiliated groups by computer security experts -- was “probably not Russia.”
However, even as Trump worked on Wednesday to deny that there has been any Russian effort to meddle in the U.S. presidential campaign, events unfolding half a world away seem to promise that Trump’s apparent affinity for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin will come under even more scrutiny.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and its continued support of armed rebels in the eastern part of the country has been a sore point with U.S. and European leaders for two and a half years now. But until recently, the situation in Ukraine appeared to be calming down.
The signing of a free trade agreement with Canada in early July was one high point. It followed a NATO summit meeting in Warsaw, in which representatives of the alliance announced increased ties to Ukraine and pledged to move more troops to the alliance’s eastern borders in a largely symbolic measure of support.
However, even as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko was meeting with representatives of NATO countries, violence between rebels and Ukrainian troops, which had decreased notably in recent months, suddenly flared. So far in July, at least 150 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed or wounded.
If violence continues to worsen in eastern Ukraine, it’s a near certainty that a little-noticed move made by Trump aides in advance of the Republican National Convention last week will start getting more attention.
The Republican foreign policy establishment has long been in favor of supporting Ukraine not just with humanitarian aid but with lethal defensive weapons as well. The last time the Republican Party drew up a platform, though, the Russian invasion of Ukraine had not yet taken place.
So during platform committee meetings in Cleveland, delegate Diana Denman of Texas proposed an amendment that would bring the platform in line with the position of the party by including the possibility of increasing sanctions against Russia and “providing lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine.
Trump surrogates, according to multiple media reports, worked with pro-Trump delegates to strip out the language about supplying weapons, thereby aligning the GOP platform more with the Obama administration’s current Ukraine policy than with that of Republicans themselves.
In his press conference Wednesday, Trump did little to dispel concern that he might be more accommodating to Russia on the question of Ukraine than others in his party.
German journalist Mareike Aden asked him if, as president, he would recognize Crimea as part of Russia and lift sanctions. Trump replied, “Yes we would be looking at that.”
Whether Trump was expressing honest interest in recognizing Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory as legitimate or was simply trying to avoid a question he couldn’t answer was unclear. But as Aden noted, neither explanation is very appealing.
People say this is Trump's way to say "no idea what you're talking about." Wouldn't that be even worse though?— MareikeAden (@MareikeAden) July 27, 2016