WASHINGTON -- The United States on March 16 issued a sharp condemnation of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the referendum that Moscow staged there and later held up as justification for its annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.
The denunciation by the U.S. State Department came on the third anniversary of the referendum organized following the seizure of key government buildings in Crimea by Russian special forces without insignia after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia amid mass street protests across the country.
It was also the latest example of the continuation of Washington’s tough public stance on Crimea that President Donald Trump, who has pledged to seek better ties with Moscow, inherited from his predecessor, Barack Obama.
"The United States does not recognize Russia's 'referendum' of March 16, 2014, nor its attempted annexation of Crimea and continued violation of international law," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement. "We once again reaffirm our commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."
Trump said during his campaign that he would like to boost cooperation with Russia on a range of issues, including counterterrorism, and that he would seek to make a deal a "that's great -- not good, great -- for America, but also good for Russia."
Trump’s stated desire for rapprochement with Moscow -- and his suggestion that he could consider lifting sanctions imposed by the Obama administration on Russia in response to the Crimea annexation -- has rattled European allies who fear he could turn a blind eye to Russian expansionism.
Less than two months into Trump’s presidency, however, there is no public indication that his administration is giving ground on Crimea. Senior members of his cabinet -- most notably his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley -- have publicly denounced Russian "occupation of the peninsula."
In his March 16 statement, Toner said Washington "again condemns the Russian occupation of Crimea and calls for its immediate end."
"Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine," he said.
Speaking to reporters in Moscow the same day, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the possibility that Crimea could be returned to Ukraine under some sort of deal with the United States.
The Trump administration has also continued the Obama administration’s stiff opposition to Russia’s backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 9,750 since April 2014.
Earlier on March 16, the European Parliament called on Moscow to free more than two dozen "illegally and arbitrarily detained" Ukrainian citizens, "both in Russia and in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, and to provide for their safe return."