A pro-Russian crowd during a rally outside a Ukrainian military base in Crimea in 2014, the year Russia annexed the region. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Donald J. Trump on Sunday offered a muddled explanation of his views about the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia and its continued efforts to undermine Ukraine’s control of other parts of the country, and he amplified his earlier suggestion that, if elected president, he might recognize Russia’s claim and end sanctions against it.
In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program “This Week,” Mr. Trump said that if he were president, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia would not send his forces into Ukraine. He then backpedaled when Mr. Stephanopoulos pointed out that Russian troops had been there for nearly two years.
“He’s not going into Ukraine, O.K., just so you understand,” Mr. Trump, the Republican nominee, said when the issue came up. “He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.”
“Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” Mr. Stephanopoulos interrupted.
“O.K., well, he’s there in a certain way,” Mr. Trump replied. “But I’m not there. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama with all the strength that you’re talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this. In the meantime, he’s going away. He take — takes Crimea.”
Interpreting Mr. Trump’s statements — what he understands about the current status of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, and how it would change in a Trump administration — is difficult given the fractured nature of the exchange. But they were significant because Mr. Trump has seemingly embraced Mr. Putin, repeatedly called for better relations with Russia and shown an unwillingness to condemn Mr. Putin for his aggressive actions against Russia’s neighbors and its crackdowns on freedoms at home.
Questions have been raised about the watering down of a section of the Republican platform dealing with Ukraine amid evidence that wording to support sending lethal weapons to the Ukrainian government was removed from the text.
Not since 1976, when President Gerald Ford committed a major gaffe in one of his debates with Jimmy Carter, declaring that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” has the issue of American support of Eastern European states, both those in NATO and those outside it, emerged as a major presidential campaign issue. It was enormously harmful to Mr. Ford, because his statement seemed to suggest that he did not understand the geopolitics of the region, which his staff denied.
Ukraine became a separate nation in 1991 after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union. It steadily flirted with the West and with NATO, and Russian officials feared it would be pulled out of Moscow’s orbit. But a pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, was democratically elected in 2010 and remained in power until he was ousted in 2014, ultimately taking up exile in Russia.
Mr. Yanukovych had hired a lobbying firm co-founded by Paul Manafort, now Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, to improve his image in the West and avoid punishment for veering toward Russia.
The annexation of Crimea in 2014 was seen as both a power grab and a land grab by Mr. Putin. It was condemned by the United States and its European allies, which all issued sanctions. Since then, Russian troops, often out of uniform, have been seen, and sometimes killed, in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine where a pro-Russia insurgency has fought the current Ukrainian government.
Republicans in Congress have long pressed for more assistance to Ukraine to push back against Mr. Putin, including lethal aid. But all references to giving lethal aid to the Ukrainian government were kept out of the party platform.
In early July, a delegate offered a platform amendment to support lethal aid. A delegate for Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, Diana Denman, said in an interview that she had pushed for inclusion of the language. But Ms. Denman said her amendment, as proposed, was never voted on because two men who were observing the panel’s deliberations moved to table the amendment, and suggested that it be discussed later.
“They openly said they were hired by the Trump campaign and worked for Mr. Trump,” Ms. Denman said, adding that she did not recall their names. In the final version of the Republican platform, the words about weapons were dropped and replaced by the term “appropriate assistance.”
Mr. Trump acknowledged in the ABC interview that the language had been watered down, but he said he had nothing to do with it. (Mr. Manafort has also said he was unaware of the matter.)
“I wasn’t involved in that,” Mr. Trump said. “Honestly, I was not involved.” But he acknowledged that his supporters were. “They softened it, I heard, but I was not involved,” he said.
Mr. Trump went on to argue that Mr. Putin might have been welcome in Crimea, sidestepping the issue of whether the Russian leader had violated the sovereignty of another state to take the territory, where Russia has a major naval base.
“The people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were,” Mr. Trump said. “And you have to look at that, also.”
He went on to say, “Ukraine is a mess,” but he put the blame for that on Mr. Obama, not on Mr. Putin.
Jake Sullivan, the chief policy adviser to Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, said the assessment reinforced his lack of temperamental fitness for the presidency.
“Today he gamely repeated Putin’s argument that Russia was justified in seizing the sovereign territory of another country by force,” Mr. Sullivan said. “This is scary stuff. But it shouldn’t surprise us.”