Trump on Russia-Ukraine Black Sea Clash: ‘I Don't Like That Aggression’

By Patrick Goodenough | November 28, 2018 | 4:49am EST
President Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of an APEC meeting in Danang, Vietnam, in November 2017. (Photo: The Kremlin)

( – President Trump indicated Tuesday he may call off a scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, saying he did not like the “aggression” Russia displayed during a naval clash with Ukraine in the Black Sea early this week.

Trump also took the opportunity to prod NATO allies, notably Germany, to spend more on defense, underlining his argument that the alliance’s European members should be doing more as a bulwark against Russian misbehavior.

Speaking at the White House briefing room, however, National Security Advisor John Bolton gave no indication the meeting with Putin would not take place in Argentina.

During an earlier interview with the Washington Post, Trump did not directly answer when asked whether Putin was within his rights to challenge three small Ukrainian naval vessels trying to transit the Kerch Strait linking the Black and Azov seas.

Instead, he said he was awaiting a full report which would be “very determinative.”

“Maybe I won’t even have the meeting [with Putin],” he said. “We’re going to see.”

Asked whether Russia’s aggression should be of concern, Trump said, “I don’t like that aggression. I don't want that aggression at all. Absolutely.”

“And by the way,” he continued, “Europe shouldn’t like that aggression. And Germany shouldn’t like that aggression. You know they’re paying one percent, and they’re supposed to be paying much more than one percent.”

Germany and many NATO members, he added, “should be spending much more money.”

Trump was alluding to NATO allies’ commitment to devote at least two percent of their national GDP to defense spending, by 2024. Only five of the 29 have reached that mark and Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, is currently on just 1.24 percent, according to figures released at a NATO summit in Brussels in July.

At that summit Trump – whose critics at home accuse of being too soft on Putin – questioned some allies’ commitment to keeping Russia in check, based on their defense spending. He also criticized Germany for buying oil and gas from Russia -- the country that NATO was formed to protect against.

The last time Trump and Putin met, in Helsinki in July, controversy erupted after Trump was viewed as having equivocated when asked if he believed Putin or U.S. intelligence agencies on the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Critics accused him of siding with Putin over the U.S. intelligence community.

Since then, the U.S. and Russia have clashed over a number of issues, including Russia’s alleged undermining of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, its response to chemical weapons use in Syria, its decision to provide the Assad regime with sophisticated S300 surface-to-air missiles, and Trump’s plan to withdraw from the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Sunday’s incident in the Black Sea brought harsh new criticism from Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who said of Russia’s conduct, “this is no way for a law-abiding, civilized nation to act.”

Haley made clear that her remarks had the support of Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – a point repeated on Tuesday by Bolton, who told reporters Haley was speaking for the United States, “and we’re going to stand on that statement.”

Bolton said the planned Trump-Putin meeting in Buenos Aires would cover security issues, arms control and regional issues including the Middle East.

The Kerch Strait lies between Russian territory and Crimea – Ukrainian territory occupied by Russia since 2014 – and is the only route Ukrainian vessels can take when moving between ports in the country’s south-west to those in the south-east.

To stop the Ukrainian vessels from transiting the strait, the Russian navy opened fire, rammed one of the Ukrainian ships, and then seized all three and their crew.

Pompeo called Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian ships a “dangerous escalation and a violation of international law.”

Moscow accuses Ukraine of a deliberate provocation.

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