The facts behind Trump’s comments on Russia and Ukraine

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GWEN IFILL: Tonight, we launch a new election year series, Candidates in Context. Between now and Election Day, we will strive to go beyond the headlines to explain what’s happening and why.

Lisa Desjardins kicks it off with a closer look at Donald Trump’s recent statements on Russia and Ukraine.

LISA DESJARDINS: First, here’s what Donald Trump said. It was over the weekend about Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Nominee: You know, I have my own ideas. He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He is not going to go into Ukraine. All right? You can mark it down, you can put it down, you can take it any way you want.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC News: He is already there, isn’t he?

DONALD TRUMP: Well, he is there in a certain way, but I’m not there. You have Obama there.

LISA DESJARDINS: Critics point out Vladimir Putin and Russia are in Ukraine now.

Let’s look at some facts. We’re talking about two critical areas, Crimea on the Black Sea, and the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine.

First, Crimea. In 1991, as the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine and Russia became separate nations. Voters in Crimea were split, but they voted 54 percent for Ukrainian independence. Tensions built, protests erupted, and, in 2014, Ukrainians pushed out a pro-Russian government in Kiev.

In Crimea, unidentified forces, no flags on their uniform, fomented an uprising and a referendum going the other way, in favor of Russia. Then Russia annexed Crimea, with international outcry, but little bloodshed.

Meanwhile, in the Donbass region, war broke out, as militant separatists took over towns and fought Ukrainian government forces. That’s a war that continues today.

The key question, what was Russia’s role? We know Russian troops stationed in Crimea did seize key positions there, and Russia confirmed that it sent soldiers on intelligence missions in Donbass. The Ukrainian government says Russia has done far more, sending more soldiers and weapons.

So, this brings us back to Mr. Trump. Here is his clarification on his words that Putin isn’t going into Ukraine from a speech yesterday.

DONALD TRUMP: But a couple of papers said, Donald Trump doesn’t realize that the Crimea was already taken.

I know it exact — two years ago, approximately, OK, approximately? It was taken during Obama’s watch.

LISA DESJARDINS: In other words, Trump argues that he knew about Crimea, but he wasn’t talking about Crimea when he spoke of Putin and Ukraine.

That is notable. It would be a profound shift in U.S. policy. The Obama administration sees Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as sovereign parts of Ukraine, and accuses Putin of violating international law. It’s a sharp turn in policy, as is something else Trump said last week. He was asked if he’d remove U.S. sanctions against Russia. His answer?

DONALD TRUMP: We will be looking at that, yes. We will be looking.

LISA DESJARDINS: And that is a change from where Trump was in 2014, when he said this about punishing Russia over Ukraine:

DONALD TRUMP: We should definitely be strong. We should definitely do sanctions, and we have to show some strength.

LISA DESJARDINS: One final piece of context about Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.

Manafort advised the campaigns of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian leader of Ukraine, who was deposed in 2014. Manafort has said he was pushing Western interests.

As we look closely at the candidate’s words, the Trump campaign insist Mrs. Trump’s overall belief is that the U.S. should be less involved in the entire region.

Lisa Desjardins for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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