U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking to the Voice of America after canceling talks with Vladimir Putin following a clash in which the Russian coast guard fired on Ukrainian vessels and jailed their crews, said he has a "very good relationship" with the Russian president and will meet with him when the time is right.
In a wide-ranging November 30 interview with VOA on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Trump also talked up a new trade deal with U.S. neighbors Mexico and Canada and suggested he is not very concerned about China's growing global reach. He indicated that he wants more beneficial trade ties with the European Union and others, saying that the United States has been "ripped off" by many countries for many years.
Trump had been scheduled to meet with Putin on December 1 for talks that the Kremlin had said could last two hours -- the first major meeting between the two since a summit in Helsinki in July, after which he faced criticism for seeming to accept Putin's assertion that Moscow did not meddle in the election that he won in 2016.
But Trump abruptly called off the meeting, tweeting on November 29 that "it would be best for all parties concerned" to cancel because the naval craft and sailors seized by the Russian coast guard off Crimea four days earlier had not been returned to Ukraine.
In the VOA interview, Trump said that "in light of what happened with Ukraine with the ships and the sailors, it just wouldn’t be the right time, but I will meet with him. I think we have a very good relationship, and I think we’re going to have a very good relationship with Russia, and China, and everyone else. I mean, I think it’s important. So I’ll meet with him at the appropriate time."
Asked about Putin's possible motives and intentions regarding Ukraine, Trump said: “I can’t read his mind, and nobody can, and he knows what he wants to do, but we can’t allow certain things to happen, and you know, it happened, and I just can’t be a part of it.”
In the confrontation on November 25, Russian vessels first rammed a Ukrainian navy tugboat and later opened fire before boarding three naval boats and taking all 24 crewmembers into custody, including six who were wounded -- three apparently seriously.
The crewmembers were taken to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, and Russian courts there ordered them held in custody for two months pending possible trial on border violation charges punishable by up to six years in prison. Lawyers, officials, and media reports later said that the Ukrainians were taken to Moscow, where 21 were confined to the Lefortovo jail and the other three were in a hospital at another jail.
The incident near the Kerch Strait, the only passage from the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov -- where Ukraine has major ports -- ratcheted up tensions between Kyiv and Moscow. It prompted fears of a new front opening up after more than four years of war between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where more than 10,300 people have been killed since April 2014.
Ukraine has imposed martial law for a monthlong period in 10 regions, including all those that border Russia. On November 30 the government barred male Russian nationals aged 16 to 60 from entering the country, with President Petro Poroshenko saying the measure was designed to prevent the formation of "private armies."
Ukraine has also imposed restrictions on entry for foreigners into Crimea, and the European Court of Human Rights said that Kyiv has filed a complaint against Russia over the maritime confrontation. Ukraine has called for a stronger NATO presence in the Black Sea region and for further Western sanctions against Russia.
Edem Semdelyayev, a lawyer for jailed tugboat captain Oleh Melnychuk, told RFE/RL on November 29 that Russia's prosecution of the Ukrainians was a "political case." He said his client told him the sailors were detained "very roughly, like in Hollywood films."
Western leaders have vocally criticized Russia and called for the release of the Ukrainian sailors. On November 30, the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized countries and the European Union called the seizure of the vessels unjustified and demanded Russia free the Ukrainians, saying that the standoff had "dangerously raised tensions."
The foreign ministers of G7 members Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States, as well as the EU's high representative, called on Russia "to release the detained crew and vessels and refrain from impeding lawful passage through the Kerch Strait."
Poroshenko praised Trump for cancelling the meeting with Putin, but several U.S. lawmakers from the Democratic Party criticized the Republican, saying he should have used the talks to take the Russian leader to task over Moscow actions in Ukraine and elsewhere.
"What I think he should have done was confront" Putin over "the escalating conflict in Ukraine" as well as other issues including Russia's alleged election meddling and cyberattacks, Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from the state of New Jersey, said on CNN.
Critics of Trump also said they suspect he canceled in part because of concerns that it would look bad to meet with Putin after a longtime personal lawyer for Trump, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to the U.S. Congress about a proposed Trump-branded development in Moscow.
Cohen had previously said that talks about the deal stopped in January 2016, but has now said the discussions continued as late as June 2016, after Trump had secured enough support in the primaries to win the Republican Party's nomination to be U.S. president.
Russian officials, meanwhile, suggested that domestic problems and opponents of closer ties with Russia had pushed Trump o cancel the meeting. "If the domestic situation and the pressure from Russophobes like Ukraine and its sponsors prevents the U.S. president from developing normal ties with the Russian president...we will wait for another chance," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, adding that "love can't be forced."
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Putin is "ready to continue dialogue" with Trump, dryly adding "We are quite a patient country and we will, of course, wait for the necessary conditions to ripen for the next change in the president's decision." He said that it the interests of "the whole world" for Moscow and Washington to discuss pressing issues and that "the longer these questions are not discussed, the more it leads to tension."
Peskov said that Putin and Trump greeted each other at some point on November 30, but there was no sign of anything but brief contact. News reports said they did not greet one another when leaders gathered at the start, and they stood far apart when leaders and their spouses posed for a photograph later in the day.
By contrast, Putin exchanged a happy grin and an elaborate, highly visible handshake with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has faced widespread outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. The Kremlin said that Putin would use the time that had been set aside for talks with Trump to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
With reporting by VOA, Reuters, AFP, CNN, RIA Novosti, RBC, Interfax, and TASS