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Trump explains his views on Ukraine, Putin; says he may hold rival event to Republican debate

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, a longtime admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said on Thursday Putin has been "somewhat weakened" by an aborted mutiny and that now is the time for the United States to try to broker a negotiated peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine.

"I want people to stop dying over this ridiculous war," Trump told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Speaking expansively about foreign policy, the front-runner in opinion polls for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination also said China should be given a 48-hour deadline to get out of what sources familiar with the matter say is a Chinese spy capability on the island of Cuba 90 miles (145 km) off the U.S. coast.

On Ukraine, Trump did not rule out that the Kyiv government might have to concede some territory to Russia in order to stop the war, which began with Russian forces invading Ukraine 16 months ago. He said everything would be "subject to negotiation", if he were president, but that Ukrainians who have waged a vigorous fight to defend their land have "earned a lot of credit."

"I think they would be entitled to keep much of what they've earned and I think that Russia likewise would agree to that. You need the right mediator, or negotiator, and we don't have that right now," he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO allies want Russia out of territory it has seized in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has launched a counteroffensive that has made small gains in driving out Russian forces.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last year proposed a 10-point peace plan, which calls on Russia to withdraw all of its troops.

"I think the biggest thing that the U.S. should be doing right now is making peace - getting Russia and Ukraine together and making peace. You can do it," Trump said. "This is the time to do it, to get the two parties together to force peace."

As president, Trump developed friendly relations with Putin, who Biden said on Wednesday has "become a bit of pariah around the world" for invading Ukraine.

Trump said Putin had been damaged by an uprising by the Russian mercenary force, the Wagner Group, and its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, last weekend.

"You could say that he's (Putin) still there, he's still strong, but he certainly has been I would say somewhat weakened at least in the minds of a lot of people," he said.

If Putin were no longer in power, however, "you don't know what the alternative is. It could be better, but it could be far worse," Trump said.

As for war crime charges levied against Putin by the International Criminal Court last March, Trump said Putin's fate should be discussed when the war is over "because right now if you bring that topic up you'll never make peace, you'll never make a settlement."

Trump was adamantly opposed to China's spy base on Cuba and said if Beijing refused to accept his 48-hour demand for shutting it down, a Trump administration would impose new tariffs on Chinese goods.

As president, Trump adopted a tougher stance on China while claiming a good relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping that soured over the coronavirus pandemic.

"I'd give them 48 hours to get out. And if they didn't get out, I'd charge them a 100% tariff on everything they sell to the United States, and they'd be gone within two days. They'd be gone within one hour," Trump said.

Trump was mum on whether the United States would support Taiwan militarily if China invaded the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own.

"I don't talk about that. And the reason I don't is because it would hurt my negotiating position," he said. "All I can tell you is for four years, there was no threat. And it wouldn't happen if I were president."

Rival event to Republican debate

Trump also said he might not participate in the Republican Party's first 2024 election primary debate in August and may hold an alternative event, citing his lead in opinion polls and what he claims is the hosting network's bias against him.

Trump said "possibly not" when asked if he would be at the debate, to be hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee on Aug 23.

The debate will be the first chance for voters to see the Republican presidential candidates square off against each other.

Trump called Fox News, which he has criticized for not covering his campaign events, a "hostile network" and said he saw little merit in debating candidates like former New Jersey governor Chris Christie who are far behind him in polling.

"Why would I give them time to make statements? Why would I do that when I'm leading them by 50 points and 60 points," Trump said.

National polls have consistently showed him to be the front-runner in the Republican primary race by a wide margin.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll earlier this month showed that some 43% of self-identified Republicans said Trump was their preferred candidate, compared to 22% who picked Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Christie was at 2%.

Trump has drawn some criticism for previously suggesting he may skip the debate.

Christie, a former Trump ally who is now one of his fiercest critics, has accused the former president of being afraid to join the debates out of fear of losing his lead in the race.

Trump said he was entertaining offers to hold a separate event during the debate or later in the same evening.

"We've had a lot of offers, whether it's a rally or whether it's an interview by somebody else," he said. "Not to be braggadocious but the debate will not be a very exciting one if I'm not there."

© Thomson Reuters 2023.