Trump Leaves Open Possibility of Recognizing Crimea's Annexation

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to dangle a carrot in front of his Russian opposite on Thursday, saying that whether or not the U.S. should recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea was “an interesting question.”

Trump is due to meet with President Vladimir Putin on July 16, with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and its military interventions in Eastern Ukraine since, expected to be on the agenda.

The U.S. and the European Union have not recognized Putin’s use of unmarked troops to take control of the Ukrainian peninsula and organize a referendum to join Russia. They also imposed punitive economic sanctions, which remain in place.

Asked about recognizing Crimea’s status at a press conference following a tumultuous two-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, Trump said: “That’s an interesting question, because long before I got here President Obama allowed that to happen, that was under his watch, not my watch.”

“People like to say, “Oh Crimea,” but the fact is they built bridges to Crimea, they built I think a submarine port,” Trump said. “What will happen with Crimea from this point, that I cannot tell you. But I am not happy about Crimea, but again that was Barack Obama’s watch, not Trump’s watch.”

It isn’t clear whether Trump could recognize Russia’s absorption of Crimea on his own, if indeed he is even considering it. One reason is that there is no new state to recognize. Congress has also legislated to the effect that it is U.S. policy “to never recognize the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Government of the Russian Federation.”

The U.S. president has long been ambivalent on Crimea’s status. As a candidate, he once said he would “take a look at” whether to recognize Crimea’s new status.

Trump repeated on Thursday that he thought his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland, might be the easiest part of his three-leg trip. Trump left NATO for the U.K., where the government has faced resignations over its plans to leave the EU, shortly after the press conference.

The U.S. president said he would have a very “loose” and brief meeting with Putin. He also said other NATO leaders had expressed “the opposite of concern” about the one-on-one, instead thanking him for doing it.

“Maybe we’ll get along with the group that we’re protecting against,” Trump said in a reference to NATO, which since 2014 has had a growing focus on strengthening defenses for a potential Russian attack on the Baltic States or Poland. He made the comment in the context of his complaint that Germany was supporting construction of a new natural gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, to import more gas directly from Russia, a country from which Germany supposedly needed NATO’s protection.

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