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Ukrainian Officials to Donald Trump: Please Stop Talking About Our Country

Just when it seemed like Trump’s weekend couldn’t get worse, the business mogul turned presidential hopeful started talking about Ukraine -- and just wouldn’t stop.

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This weekend, it briefly seemed like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump had redefined the meaning of bad press after members of his own party rushed to disown the insults he leveled at the Muslim parents of fallen U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, who died protecting hundreds of American troops in Iraq in 2004.

But just when it seemed like Trump’s weekend couldn’t get worse, the business mogul turned presidential hopeful started talking about Ukraine — and just wouldn’t stop.

In a Sunday interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News “This Week,” Trump tried to wiggle his way out of questions about Russian involvement in Ukraine by saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is not going into Ukraine”  — even though it’s widely understood that Russian troops moved into the Crimean peninsula and eastern Ukraine in 2014.

“Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” Stephanopoulos asked back.

“OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet,” Trump said, before insisting “that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama” and claiming that those living on the Crimea peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014, might actually be happier under Russian control.

On Monday, Trump sought to clarify his contradictory and confusing statements again, tweeting that he meant Putin would not go into Ukraine again if he were president — though that clearly wasn’t what he said — and then blamed the seizure of Crimea on Obama’s lack of strength toward Russia. Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign co-chair suggested that the reality-television producer was just thinking of something else while conducting a TV interview.

Ukrainian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly to Washington told CNN on Monday that “everybody was surprised” by Trump’s comments, which are “in contradiction with [the] official position of [the] White House, of the United States, and of Republicans before.”

Chaly said it was a fact that Russian troops are in Ukraine, and went on to say that Ukrainian officials are now concerned about what could happen after the November presidential elections in the United States. Although Ukrainian-Americans have historically voted Republican, Chaly said, Trump’s controversial comments over the weekend could very likely lose him the support of that population.

Chaly’s remarks came after former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also condemned Trump’s comments on Ukraine, saying in a Facebook post on Sunday that the presidential candidate had violated “the very values of the free world, civilized world order, and international law.”

“It can hardly be called ignorance. This is a breach of moral and civilized principles,” Yatsenyuk wrote. “The United States is the leader of the free world. Without leadership and alliance the free world will be destroyed by the likes of Putin, Le Pen, Assad, Kim Jong Un, and other dictators, demagogues, and populists.”

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov also lashed out at Trump, saying in a separate Facebook post that his “shameless statement…on possible recognition of Crimea as Russia is a diagnosis of a dangerous fringe politician.”

“He is dangerous for Ukraine and equally for the USA,” Avakov wrote. “An outcast bowing down to Putin cannot be the guarantor of democratic freedoms in the U.S. and the world.”

In late February 2014, shortly after the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia deployed troops without insignia into Crimea and later annexed the peninsula in March 2014. Moscow also sent troops into eastern Ukraine to fight alongside pro-Russian separatists as fighting began in April 2014. Despite repeated denials from the Kremlin, the presence of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory has been confirmed multiple times and been widely tracked through Russian soldiers’ accounts on social media networks.

The Obama administration supported the new government in Kiev, but refrained from interfering to prevent the Russian push into Ukraine.

According to a transcript from a Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council meeting that took place on February 28, 2014, Ukrainian authorities knew the Kremlin was preparing for an operation in Crimea, but decided not to fight it, in part because Ukraine’s corrupt and underfunded military would have been no match for superior Russian forces. But Ukraine also resisted because Western governments, including Washington, asked Kiev not to use force.

“Americans, Germans, all of them as one are asking us not to make any active moves because, according to their intelligence services, Putin would use it to start a large-scale land invasion,” said Valentin Nalyvaichenko, then head of Ukraine’s intelligence service, at the national security meeting according to the transcript.

In response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the United States targeted members of Putin’s inner circle with economic sanctions, which were later expanded in July 2014 after pro-Russian separatists shot down a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine.

The White House has been supportive of Ukraine’s fledgling government, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden even took the country into his own portfolio. Biden has remained a strong advocate for U.S. support for Kiev during its standoff with Russia, but has also used his role to criticize the Ukrainian administration’s myriad of problems with economic reform, corruption, and political infighting.

Trump’s camp, meanwhile, lobbied hard for changes to the Republican platform last month, removing any reference to U.S. armed support for Ukraine. Less clear is where exactly Trump stands on the whole morass.

“Crimea has been taken,” Trump said on ABC on Sunday, after claiming Crimeans may be OK with it. “Don’t blame Donald Trump for that.”

Photo credit: PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

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