A Ukrainian political leader said she received assurances from President Trump that he would look out for Ukraine in its ongoing dispute with Russia, according to people briefed in the aftermath of a quick, informal conversation between the two political figures.
Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko had a momentary meeting with Trump on Thursday just before he spoke to the National Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton.
Tymoshenko and a group of supporters who traveled with her from Kiev this week quickly relayed word of the exchange, telling allies in Washington that Trump had said he would not abandon Ukraine and would not lift sanctions against Russia until Ukraine was secure.
The White House issued a statement late Friday confirming that a brief conversation had taken place.
“The President and the former PM had a brief, informal photo-op meeting in the reception before the National Prayer Breakfast,” the White House said in a statement released late Friday.
“While no formal assurances were given, as the former PM is not the President’s counterpart, the United States remains concerned about violence in Eastern Ukraine.”
A member of Tymoshenko’s team issued a brief statement late Friday confirming the conversation but declining to say how Trump responded. “Tymoshenko will make no further comment out of respect for the private nature” of the conversation with Trump, said Hryhoriy Nemyria, a member of parliament from Ukraine who traveled to Washington this week.
During the presidential campaign, Trump and his aides hinted that he might favor easing sanctions against Russia that were imposed after it invaded Crimea, a part of Ukraine that was annexed in March 2014 by Russia. Since then, more than 9,000 people have been killed in fighting between Ukrainian government troops and Russia-backed separatist forces.
On Jan. 28, the same day that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by telephone, fighting in Eastern Ukraine spiked with reports of intense shelling by separatist forces. Utilities were damaged, and tens of thousands were reported without water in subfreezing temperatures.
While the White House has not spoken formally about Ukraine since the election, the U.S. ambassador to United Nations condemned Russia’s “aggressive actions” Thursday and warned that sanctions imposed against Russia after it annexed Crimea would remain until the territory is returned to Ukraine.
“The United States stands with the people of Ukraine who have suffered for nearly three years under Russian occupation and military interventions,” said Nikki Haley in her maiden speech as U.N. envoy. “Until Russia and the separatists it supports respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, this crisis will continue.”
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, blamed Ukrainian forces for instigating the current escalation in fighting while insisting Russia continues to hope for improved relations between the Kremlin and the White House.
Analysts in Washington say that both Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko appear to be using the intensified fighting as a means of influencing, and perhaps testing, the Trump administration. The brief exchange on the topic between Trump and Tymoshenko was first reported Friday by Politico.