By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — The White House has said that President Donald Trump fully expects Russia to return control of Crimea to Ukraine.
Spokesman Sean Spicer made the remarks at a contentious February 14 news conference that focused largely on the abrupt departure of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
Flynn resigned less than 24 hours earlier, following news reports that said phone calls he held with Russia’s ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration included discussions of sanctions imposed by then-President Barack Obama.
The Obama administration hit Russia with several waves of sanctions following Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv’s forces and Russia-backed separatists.
Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly said he wants better relations with Russia and that he would consider lifting sanctions against Moscow.
Multiple news reports in the past week have said Flynn specifically mentioned the issue of sanctions in phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak weeks before Trump’s inauguration on January 20.
Spicer defended Trump’s approach to Russia, telling reporters on February 14 that the president “has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate the violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea.”
“The irony of this entire situation is that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia. He continues to raise the issue of Crimea, which the previous administration allowed to be seized by Russia,” Spicer said.
Spicer also pointed to remarks made by Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in her first appearance before the Security Council on February 3, in which she forcefully condemned Russia, saying that “Crimea is a part of Ukraine.”
Haley said in her remarks that “Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.”
It was not clear whether Haley was also referring to sanctions imposed on Russia for its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
One of the phone calls that Flynn had with Kislyak reportedly occurred on December 26. That was the same day that Obama announced a new set of sanctions against Russia in retaliation for what U.S. intelligence concluded was a systematic effort using computer hacking and propaganda to influence the presidential election.
Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton to win the election.