Trump hints: Maybe Russia isn't really controlling the separatists fighting in Ukraine

It’s one thing to disagree with the international consensus on Russian interference in Ukraine, it’s another to disagree with your own UN ambassador. Here’s Trump last night to O’Reilly:

President Trump cast doubt on whether Moscow is backing separatists engaged in the recent escalation of fighting in eastern Ukraine, appearing to side with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has long denied involvement in the conflict despite evidence to the contrary.

Mr. Trump said he did not take offense at the outbreak of a lethal bout of fighting in Ukraine that came within a day of a phone conversation he had with Mr. Putin, saying of the recent clashes, “we don’t really know exactly what that is.”

“They’re pro-forces,” Mr. Trump said of the Ukrainian separatists in an interview that aired on Monday on “The O’Reilly Factor,” on Fox News. “We don’t know, are they uncontrollable? Are they uncontrolled? That happens also. We’re going to find out; I would be surprised, but we’ll see.”

He’d be “surprised” to find that Ukrainian separatists who shot down a passenger jet with a sophisticated Russian missile are being backed by Russia? Okay then. Now here’s Nikki Haley five days ago at the UN:

We do want to better our relations with Russia. However, the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions…

The United States stands with the people of Ukraine, who have suffered for nearly three years under Russian occupation and military intervention. Until Russia and the separatists it supports respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, this crisis will continue…

The United States calls on Russia and the combined Russian-separatist forces to fulfill their commitments in the Minsk agreements and fully restore and respect the ceasefire.

Is this deliberate strategic ambiguity, a carrot-and-stick approach designed to make Russia tread lightly in Ukraine while it pursues detente with the U.S., or is this a case of Trump and his cabinet essentially running two distinct foreign policies? The most striking thing about the confirmation hearings for his natsec appointees — Mattis, Pompeo, Haley, even Tillerson to some extent — was how consistently critical they were of Russia. They took the mainstream Republican line, contra Trump. Now here’s their boss suggesting that Ukrainian separatists, who depend on Moscow for materiel and manpower, might be free agents acting on their own initiative. Baffling. Ukraine isn’t a member of NATO, but imagine the anxiety among eastern European nations who are members watching Trump parrot one of Putin’s favorite talking points, that the “separatists” attempting to carve out a chunk of the country (for eventual annexation by Russia, of course) are independent actors for whom the Kremlin can’t be held responsible. Is that likely to lead to more or less war in the region?

There’s a brief snippet of Trump’s O’Reilly comments in the first clip below, followed by Marco Rubio in the second threatening Trump with veto-proof majorities in support of sanctions on Russia over Ukraine if Trump attempts to roll back the ones currently in place. You can never take Rubio’s threats too seriously but he may not be bluffing this time.