Huh: Nikki Haley uses her first statement at the UN to blast ... Russia

A leftover from yesterday that shouldn’t be missed. We know from her confirmation hearing (and from her early endorsement of Marco Rubio in the primaries) that Haley’s a Russia hawk. We know from … pretty much everything he’s said since June 2015 that Trump isn’t. So how to explain this opening salvo at the UN, which operates as Haley putting Russia on notice not to expect a free pass from Trump-led America?

And no, according to CNN, Haley didn’t freelance this. The White House knew it was coming.

Haley was speaking at an emergency UN meeting about a sudden upsurge in violence in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting the Ukrainian army. Her remarks were notable for the stark difference between her rhetoric and Trump’s.

Sources told CNN Thursday evening that the White House was aware in advance of Haley’s speech. A source told CNN’s Dana Bash that Haley didn’t get direction from the White House but she wasn’t asked not do to it. Another source told CNN’s Elise Labott the National Security Council signed off on the remarks.

That must be true. It’s crazy to think Haley would take it upon herself to jeopardize her boss’s hoped-for detente with Russia by firing this broadside without giving him advance notice. Note how far-ranging it is, too: Instead of an anodyne statement calling for the end of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, where new fighting between the locals and “Russian separatists” has killed 34 people, she makes a point of insisting that Crimea belongs to Ukraine and that U.S. sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of the peninsula will remain in place until Russia withdraws. Trump could still roll back Obama’s recent sanctions on Russia over the DNC and Podesta hackings, but there’s no way he can unilaterally lift the 2014 sanctions over Ukraine now that Haley’s drawn this line. That’s surprising when you remember that he’s been known to offer a Putin talking point about self-determination when asked if he thinks Russia has a claim to Crimea.

So what’s Trump’s angle here? Putin suggested yesterday that Ukrainians had picked this latest fight with Russia deliberately, to see how Trump would react, but of course the same might be true of Putin himself. If the U.S. had shrugged off the skirmishing in Ukraine as none of its business, that would be the green light to Moscow to consider more aggressive expansionism. Having Haley throw a brushback pitch here is a way of warning them not to get too frisky, at least not yet. And it’s also basic good negotiation strategy: If Trump’s dead set on rapprochement, it’d be silly for him to show conciliation towards Russia immediately. Draw a line and then see what you can get to make it worth your while come off that line. The Haley statement achieves that, as well as signaling some basic resolve to NATO and America’s Far East allies. It’s a smart move. Now we wait to see what it’s a prelude to in terms of bilateral negotiations with Moscow.

I wonder if Haley’s going to end up playing this bad-cop role with Russia regularly at the UN while Trump plays good cop. If that’s done skillfully, it might keep Putin off-balance. If it’s not done skillfully and Trump ends up erasing lines that Haley made a point of drawing during UN sessions, she’ll quickly come to be seen as a joke whose words have little credibility.