Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Feb. 15 that the issue of Crimea's status will not be a part of negotiations between Russia and the United States. The statement comes after U.S. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said during a press briefing Feb. 14 that Crimea was "seized" by Russia and that U.S. President Donald Trump expects Russia to "return" the peninsula to Ukraine. Trump himself weighed in on the issue, tweeting Feb. 15 that "Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama administration."
Crimea has been a key point of contention between Washington and Moscow since it was annexed by Russia in March 2014, shortly after the Euromaidan uprising in Ukraine. The administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama passed sanctions against Russia directly tied to the annexation and consistently demanded that the peninsula be returned to Ukraine. However, Trump questioned this position during his presidential campaign, stating in an interview in July 2016 that "the people of Crimea, from what I've heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also."
This response, along with the suggestion made since his election that the United States could ease sanctions on Russia in exchange for cooperation in other areas such as nuclear arms reduction, gave the impression that the Trump administration could shift its stance on Crimea. But recent statements out of the administration, including by U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nicki Haley, Spicer, and now Trump, indicate that the administration intends to stand firm on Crimea rather than to recognize Russia's annexation.
It should be noted, however, that Crimea is a relatively small part of the broader U.S.-Russia negotiation process over Ukraine. The more important component — with much more room for maneuvering and flexibility — is related to eastern Ukraine and the conflict between Ukrainian security forces and pro-Russia separatists in Donbas. The U.S. sanctions against Russia related to eastern Ukraine are more significant, dealing with restrictions in the financial and energy sectors. In contrast, the Crimea-related sanctions are limited to individual assets and to travel bans that have minimal economic repercussions for Russia.
The fact that the United States and Russia appear unwilling to budge when it comes to Crimea does not undermine the wider negotiation process. There is still room for agreements on eastern Ukraine, given the unofficial nature of Russia's support for the separatists and its negotiating framework under the Minsk protocols, which is subject to various interpretations. Still, a major compromise on eastern Ukraine is not inevitable, and several U.S. congressmen, including prominent Republican lawmakers, have resisted easing sanctions on Russia. Negotiations over eastern Ukraine will determine the U.S.-Russia relationship far more than negotiations over Crimea.