U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused Russia of “occupying” the Crimean Peninsula, saying Washington “rejects” the move by Moscow.
“In concert with allies, partners and the international community, the United States rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored,” the top American diplomat said in a statement on Wednesday, a few hours prior to his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Crimea — then territory of Ukraine — voted in a referendum to join Russia on March 17, 2014. In the referendum, which was held a month after the overthrow of the then-president Viktor Yanukovych, 96.8 percent of participants voted in favor of unification with Russia.
At about the same time, an armed conflict broke out in the eastern regions of Ukraine when Kiev launched military operations to quell pro-Russia protests there. That conflict continues to this day, and according to the United Nations (U.N.) figures, it has so far left over 10,000 people dead and more than a million others displaced since its onset.
Kiev and the West accuse Moscow of involvement in the conflict, a charge Russia has strongly denied. Washington and its Western allies have so far imposed several rounds of sanctions against Russia both over the Crimean unification and the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“The United States calls on Russia to respect the principles to which it has long claimed to adhere and to end its occupation of Crimea,” Pompeo further said.
U.S. President Donald Trump has time and gain blamed former American president Barack Obama for being soft on Russia. However, when asked by reporters at the end of June whether Washington would recognize Moscow’s “claim” on Crimea, Trump himself ambiguously responded, “We’re going to have to see.”
Trump met Russian President Vladimir Putin one-on-one in Finland’s capital of Helsinki on July 16.
With a series of remarks after that meeting, including during a joint press conference with Putin, Trump caused a ruckus at home, with Democrats and Republicans alike accusing the U.S. president of having been outsmarted by Putin.
Later, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo sparred for hours with Congress members, defending the administration’s handling of Russia and the Trump-Putin summit.
Pompeo listed a number of measures — such as the expulsion of several Russian diplomats, more than 200 sanctions, the closure of Moscow’s consulates in San Francisco and Seattle, the conducting of 150 military exercises in Europe, the allocation of hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine — to show that the Trump administration had been “tough” enough on the Kremlin.
The US secretary of state’s appearance before the committee came as Washington postponed a second summit with Putin amid fierce criticism of Trump’s first meeting with the Russian president.