If President Trump is right in his assessment, then his recognition of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea will inaugurate a new period in bilateral United States-Russia relations and he will, in time, be hailed all over the world for having defused one of the 21st century’s emerging crises. Unthinkable as it should be and amoral as it would be, such a line of thought may well define President Trump’s calculations coming into his July 16, 2018 Helsinki Summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On June 29, 2018, Bloomberg.com reported:
President Donald Trump left the door open to recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, telling reporters that such a move would be up for discussion when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month.
“We’re going to have to see,” Trump told reporters Friday on Air Force One when asked if the U.S. would accept Russia’s claim on the territory it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
A move by Trump that lays a path toward at least de facto recognition of Russia’s annexation, and perhaps much more, cannot be precluded. At the June 2018 G-7 Summit, President Trump called for Russia to be re-admitted to the group from which it was expelled after its invasion of Crimea. In effect, Trump wanted the G-7 to reward Russia without Russia’s ending its claim to Crimea. CNN reported:
“I think it would be an asset to have Russia back in,” Trump said during an impromptu press conference at the summit. “I think it would be good for the world. I think it would be good for Russia. I think it would be good [for] the United States. I think it would be good for all of the countries of the current G7. I think the G8 would be better.”
President Trump has already demonstrated a willingness to make concessions for which the United States receives nothing in return. Following his June 2018 Summit with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un, President Trump announced that the United States would suspend its joint military exercises with South Korea (The New York Times). At that meeting, the United States received no concrete concessions from North Korea of any kind. A follow-up round of talks held in Pyongyang between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice-Chairman of the Central Committee of North Korea’s Workers’ Party Kim Yong-chol met a hard North Korean posture and produced no meaningful movement toward North Korea’s denuclearization (The Washington Post).
President Trump has also demonstrated unprecedented hostility by an American President toward the nation’s G-7 partners and its NATO allies. He has repeatedly assailed them for “taking advantage” of the United States on trade (Reuters). The President has periodically complained that NATO’s countries are essentially engaging in free-riding behavior. As a candidate and as President, he has occasionally threatened that the United States would not come to the defense of NATO countries who are not making sufficient payments (The Atlantic Council).
President Trump’s hints of accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea, his effort to bring Russia back into the G-7 even as it retains Crimea, his having made an unreciprocated concession to North Korea, and his dim view of some of the nation’s leading allies is a toxic combination. It provides a basis by which an otherwise unthinkable strategic American foreign policy change could become a plausible outcome.
Just as President Trump assumed that North Korea would rapidly move to denuclearize following his Summit in Singapore, Trump would likely expect U.S. recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea to transform Russia into a reliable bilateral partner and benign geopolitical actor.
Would President Trump be right?
On September 30, 1938, New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and columnist Arthur Krock wrote in his “In the Nation” column of a somewhat similar approach of trading territory for peace. He explained:
If he [British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain] is right, then the Sudeten settlements made with the Fuehrer by the representatives of Great Britain, France and Italy will inaugurate a long period of peace in Europe. Though Czechoslovakia may be shrunk to a small economic appanage of Germany, dependent for its life on the good faith of the powers guarantory, Mr. Chamberlain will be hailed all over the world and enduringly.
Chamberlain’s bet turned out to be among history’s most disastrous calculations. The aftermath was catastrophic.
Although one should not automatically assume a similar outcome with 21st century Russia playing the role of 1930s-era Germany, a bad outcome is far more likely than not. Russia remains a revanchist state. It is economically fragile. Its population is oscillating between minimal growth and decline. It remains geopolitically fearful. It continues to mourn the loss of the Soviet Union’s global clout.
Recognition of its illegitimate annexation of Crimea will not cure the structural illnesses that hobble present-day Russia. Instead, it could amplify the symptoms of that condition. Russia could embrace such recognition as proof of its return to superpower stature. It could invest the economic benefits into strengthening its military power. These developments, in turn, could further embolden Russia to use military force against neighboring countries to pursue objectives that would otherwise be unattainable if left to the voluntary choice of those sovereign states. Recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea could also dishearten the nations that lie along the vast Russian periphery and reduce worldwide confidence in American commitments to free countries and peoples.
In the end, the world could become much less stable. The rules and institutions that define the existing world order could suffer a severe and possibly existential shock. That this world order has precluded the great global wars that cost tens of millions of lives and inflicted so much damage during the 20th century, has brought more than seven decades of peace to once-divided Europe, and produced enormous prosperity that has given billions of people worldwide better lives would be irrelevant. Legacy, alone, is insufficient to sustain a world order when its guarantors are unwilling to preserve it.
Any move by President Trump to pave the way for recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, much less grant it outright, would provide powerful evidence that the United States is no longer a guarantor of the world order it had done so much to construct following World War II. The defense of that order would be left to others. There is no assurance that it would survive over time following the withdrawal of the American commitment to sustaining it.
President Trump would make a historic error in judgment. Future generations would almost certainly pay a severe price for that blunder.