KIEV, UKRAINE — Plunging into a burning geopolitical conflict, Republican front-runner Donald Trump said Friday that Russia had pursued an aggressive policy in Ukraine because "there is no respect for the United States."
"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin does not respect our president whatsoever," said Trump.
But he held back from promising more U.S. support for a nation where almost 8,000 people have been killed since April 2014, saying that it was Europe's responsibility.
Trump's comments, delivered via videolink, represented a slight tonal shift for the billionaire, though his policy prescriptions remained essentially unchanged. Trump has said in the past that he "would not care that much" whether or not Ukraine was allowed to join NATO. ("Whether it goes in or doesn't go in, I wouldn't care," he told NBC's Chuck Todd last month. "If it goes in, great. If it doesn't go in, great.")
But on Friday, he was addressing an international conference whose official purpose is to “develop strategies for Ukraine and Wider Europe and promote Ukraine’s European integration” -- a gathering that was itself a refugee from Crimea, where it was held for a decade before being displaced by Russia's 2014 annexation of the peninsula. His language reflected the audience.
"With respect to the Ukraine, people here have to band together from other parts of Europe to help," Trump said. "Whether it's Germany or other of the countries, I don't think you're getting the support you need."
The remarks were consistent with his previous comments that the crisis in Ukraine is a European problem, and that the United States should avoid becoming involved in addressing the situation. “I don't like what's happening with Ukraine," he said on Meet the Press in August. "But that's really a problem that affects Europe a lot more than it affects us. And they should be leading some of this charge."
His NATO support has long been colored by his view that it gives European countries a pathway to place the burden of international responsibility on the United States. In his 2000 book, “The America We Deserve,” Trump wrote that “their conflicts are not worth American lives. Pulling back from Europe would save this country millions of dollars annually.”
"The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous. And these are clearly funds that can be put to better use,” he wrote then. “Our allies don't seem to appreciate our presence anyway.”
Some in Ukraine have expressed resentment against the billionaire over his perceived ambivalence over the tensions resulting from the Russian annexation of Crimea. That tension was exacerbated by a series of warm comments he made about Russia President Vladimir Putin earlier this summer.
“I was over in Moscow two years ago and I will tell you – you can get along with those people and get along with them well. You can make deals with those people. Obama can’t,” he told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. “I would be willing to bet I would have a great relationship with Putin. It’s about leadership.”
Those remarks led one group of anti-Russian activists in Ukraine to call Trump a "Kremlin agent" and add his name to an "enemy list" it assembled and published online -- a list that drew considerable media attention in Ukraine before it was taken down.
A successful businessman who has amassed billions in wealth, the extent of Trump’s exposure to foreign issues comes almost exclusively from private dealings abroad. He has now found himself in a presidential race where foreign policy issues have consistently played an unexpectedly central role.
Trump’s weakness on foreign policy issues was highlighted in an interview earlier this month, when hep stumbled through several terrorism-related quested while speaking with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. The questions about specific terrorist leaders, though tough, were unsurprising given Hewitt’s reputation for boring in on foreign policy. Rather than answering directly, the billionaire sidestepped the premise of Hewitt’s questioning entirely.
"No, you know, I’ll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed," he said. "They’ll be all gone. I knew you were going to ask me things like this, and there’s no reason, because number one, I’ll find, I will hopefully find General Douglas MacArthur in the pack. I will find whoever it is that I’ll find, and we’ll, but they’re all changing, Hugh.”
Since that exchange, Trump has made two brief appearances designed to highlight his foreign policy bona fides: His Friday remarks come the same week he gave a short speech in Washington at a rally protesting the Obama administration's Iran nuclear deal.