UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley blamed Russia on Thursday for the recent surge of violence in eastern Ukraine and warned Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia will not be lifted until Moscow returns Crimea to Kiev.
"I consider it unfortunate on the occasion of my first appearance here I must condemn the aggressive actions of Russia," Haley said, making her first public remarks inside the Security Council since being sworn in as the United States' representative to the United Nations last month.
"It shouldn't happen, or be that way. 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."
Her remarks came amid speculation over U.S. President Donald Trump's intentions towards Moscow. Trump has praised Russia's President Vladimir Putin and expressed a wish for improved relations between the two countries.
Haley made clear that tensions over the Ukraine would not end soon, including the matter of sanctions slapped on Russia related to the annexation of Crimea three years ago.
"Eastern Ukraine of course is not the only part of the country suffering because of Russia’s aggressive actions. The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea," Haley said.
"Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine."
The United States and other Western powers imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 over its annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and its support for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, disputed Haley's commentary on Crimea, but welcomed his American counterpart.
"It was friendly enough, given the circumstances and given the subject we were discussing," the Russian ambassador told reporters.
He noted the chance for a new start after ties between Russia and United States frayed in Obama's second term.
"If there is an opportunity to have better relations with the United States, if there is an opportunity for us to work better with the United States... then we should take this opportunity."
He faulted the Obama administration for not doing enough to end the conflict in Ukraine and called on the Trump government to bring its influence to bear.
"Clearly they are the people who are listened to in Kiev."
Ukraine and Russia had blamed each other for a surge in fighting in recent days around the government-held industrial town of Avdiivka that has led to the highest casualty toll in weeks and cut off power and water to thousands of civilians on the front line.
At the Thursday Security Council session, Ukraine's U.N. ambassador, Volodymr Yelchenko, who holds the presidency of the Security Council for February, said the strife around Avdiivka started with artillery shelling by the Russian army and Russian-backed fighters from the two suburbs they control abutting the town.
Churkin blamed Ukrainian security forces for starting the bloodshed.
U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, painted a grim picture of the situation on the ground.
"Hundreds of thousand of civilians on both sides of the contact line are still at risk of losing all access to water, heating and electricity, bringing the specter of further displacements closer," Feltman said.
"With every new day of fighting, the conflict becomes more entrenched and difficult to resolve. There is no military solution to this conflict."
(Reporting By Ned Parker; Editing by Bernard Orr)