Trump Vows To 'Find Out' Nature of Separatist Forces in Ukraine

US President Donald Trump taped an interview with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump has promised to "find out" the nature of the pro-Russian forces fighting the Ukrainian government, casting doubt over whether they are controlled by Russia.

Russia has vehemently denied that the separatist insurgency in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions, bordering Russia is armed and reinforced by the Russian military. After a three year conflict—during which the anti-government forces have kept one of the largest European militaries at bay—Western governments have uniformly accepted that the separatist effort is supported by Russia.

The troops have admitted to having Russian soldiers fight alongside them, some of whom Ukraine has captured and traded to Russia for its own captives based there. When asked in a Fox News interview if he felt insulted that separatist forces ramped up their advance on eastern Ukraine, despite his phone call with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Trump said he was not.

Contrary to Poroshenko's claims that the rebels are emboldened and advancing on frontline village Avdiivka, Trump said "we don't really know exactly what that is."

"They're pro-forces," Trump said of the separatists groups in an interview that aired on Monday night. But added it was not certain that these forces were commanded by the Kremlin—an allegation Russia denies but European governments have long since accepted.

"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," Trump said unclearly, possibly indicating that he was skeptical that the separatists are uncontrolled.

Later he defended his "respect" for Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying this did not amount to any warm personal feelings. "He's a leader of his country. I say it's better to get along with Russia than not. Will I get along with them? I have no idea. It is very possible I won't."

Trump's line on Ukraine has differed vastly with other members of his Republican party, which contains some of the strongest advocates for providing Kiev with the means to fight Russian influence.

His own appointees for U.N. envoy and Secretary of State, Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson respectively, have both been much clearer on and critical of Russia's behavior towards Ukraine.

Haley condemned the separatist attack, which Trump sounded unsure on, as " Russian actions," while Tillerson issued several strong statements, condemning Russia during his confirmation, including the admission that Russia "has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea."

Trump's Defence Secretary James Mattis also weighed in on the threat of Russia at his confirmation, saying that "right now the most important thing is that we recognize the reality of what we deal with Mr. Putin and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance."