Asked by journalists last week if he would accept Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, President Donald Trump responded with “we’re going to have to see” – a position that doesn’t comport with the international community at large, which views President Vladimir Putin’s decision to take the territory as an egregious move.
As Trump prepares for his July 16 summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, there have been signs that the U.S. president might be considering some sort of grand bargain that might entail recognition of Moscow’s claims.
Most of the president’s statements on Crimea are similarly slippery, but one recent report gives a hint of his real views on the subject. Over dinner at the recent Group of Seven summit, according to BuzzFeed, he told other summit participants that Crimea is Russian because the population of the peninsula speaks Russian.
Though Trump is correct that most Crimeans speak Russian, his stance is curious considering the manner in which Putin obtained peninsula:
Putin seized the territory from Ukraine using a cunning blend of subterfuge and military force, in the process flouting a series of international agreements signed by his own government. The international community has overwhelmingly condemned this smash-and-grab — the diplomatic equivalent of an armed robbery. Until that moment four years ago, no country had annexed the territory of a European neighbor since World War II.
Still, Trump appears willing to oversimplify a complex issue: If the majority of Crimeans speak Russian and the territory once belonged to Russia, what’s the harm?
This isn’t the first time that Trump has repeated Russian arguments for the annexation. During his presidential campaign in the summer of 2016, he told an interviewer that “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” Putin also invokes the notion of popular sovereignty, often citing a referendum conducted in the territory after the Russians took control. What both fail to mention is that the vote effectively took place under profoundly undemocratic conditions. The Kremlin dominated the media, tightly controlled voting and harshly suppressed any expressions of dissent (especially among the Tatars, who overwhelmingly continue to support Ukrainian sovereignty over the territory).
Even if it were so that a majority of Crimeans wished to be taken into the Russian fold, condoning the fact that Putin stole the territory from Ukraine sets a dangerous precedent.
The world is rife with border-straddling ethnic groups, controversial language issues and territorial disputes. We cannot allow the resulting disagreements to be solved by force. That way lies global anarchy.
Legally and politically, Crimea is still part of Ukraine, and the West must continue to insist on this point until Russia relents. Yet there is also a profound moral issue at stake. Moscow’s claim to Crimea (and its continuing war against Ukraine) is ultimately based on the toxic notion that Russia has a right to meddle in the fates of neighboring countries as it sees fit, just because they are part of its imagined “sphere of influence.”
Yet the President of the United States at times appears to share in Putin’s view:
[M]any of Trump’s statements suggest that he shares Russian assumptions on this score and that he would be happy to revert to the 19th-century notion that great powers dictate the terms to smaller ones. The very idea that he and Putin should presume to discuss the fate of Ukrainian territory over the heads of 44 million Ukrainians is scandalous. It has been said before, but it can’t be said enough: Crimea belongs to Ukraine, and it is not Trump’s to give away.