With Trump Talk of Crimea Deal, Will U.S. Bulwark Hold?

The prospect that President Donald Trump might seek a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that sells out Crimea highlights the vulnerability of the borders of Europe’s second-largest country, Ukraine, despite years of sanctions and international condemnation over Russia’s bold, but remarkably easy, land grab.

As his July 16 summit with Putin in Helsinki grew near, Trump floated the idea of a deal on Crimea, and neither he nor his national security adviser, John Bolton, have ruled it out in follow-up questioning by reporters. On July 2, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders reiterated U.S. policy to deny recognition for Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea in March 2014, and said sanctions wouldn’t be lifted until Crimea is returned to Ukraine. And Russian officials have said Crimea isn’t on the agenda for the Trump-Putin tête-à-tête. But the idea is in the air, and defenders of the post-World War II international order are holding their breaths to see whether the two men will broach it.

At last week’s summit of NATO leaders, Trump contradicted himself on the subject. He concurred with a joint statement “strongly” condemning “Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea, which we do not and will not recognize.” And during a news conference later, he criticized President Barack Obama for “allowing” the annexation to occur, saying he “wouldn’t have allowed it to happen.” But he again left open the possibility of a shift. “What will happen with Crimea from this point on, that I can’t tell you.”

What could such a deal look like? An accommodation on Crimea could officially recognize Russian control of the territory and/or lift U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia over the illegal seizure of Ukrainian territory, perhaps in return for Russian cooperation on counterterrorism or curbing Iranian influence in Syria. Such a result would be a historic abrogation of the international standards that have sought to prevent changes of borders by force since the end of World War II.

“Those deals seldom work out,” said Ambassador Dan Fried, a former top National Security Council and State Department official who coordinated sanctions policy in response to Russia’s 2014 attacks on Ukraine. “When you’re engaged in a kind of cynical betrayal of your principles and your friends, you actually lose more than you think.”

So How Did We Get Here?

Certainly, the U.S. response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its subsequent invasion of the Donbas region in the eastern part of Ukraine has included unprecedented financial sanctions and travel bans on Russians. Fried notes that the U.S. had never sanctioned such a big economy, and U.S. officials wanted to be sure the measures didn’t inadvertently trigger a financial crisis. The U.S. also successfully persuaded skeptical European countries to join the sanctions.

On both sides of the Atlantic, officials have vigorously condemned Russian actions, especially after repeated investigations determined Russian responsibility for the shootdown over eastern Ukraine of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing 298 people in July 2014.

Condemnation extended to multiple forums. The G-8 booted Russia to isolate the leadership in Moscow for its affront to the international order (and Trump is now suggesting that Russian membership in the group should be restored). When Russia used its veto power in the United Nations Security Council to block action over Crimea, the U.S. and its allies took the rare step of going to the UN General Assembly, which approved a resolution declaring the annexation illegal, by a vote of 100 in favor, with 11 against and 58 abstentions.

And the U.S. Congress consistently embraced sanctions against Russia. In July 2017, they went so far as to pass, with veto-proof majorities in both houses, a measure that blocks the president from easing the sanctions that have been imposed and requires additional penalties on Moscow.

The U.S. also has managed over four years, with the recent exceptions of Trump and Bolton, to maintain disciplined public messaging from a range of U.S. officials to deny Russia the recognition it seeks for the Crimean annexation and continue the condemnation of Moscow for its actions in eastern Ukraine.

But behind the scenes in both Europe and the U.S. have been the persistent whispers: that Crimea is likely lost permanently or at least for a very long time; that Ukraine’s current government hasn’t been able to stabilize Ukraine politically and economically since the “Maidan” revolution of 2014; and that Russia might continue to prevail in a “frozen” conflict in the east for years.

The narrative of Russian dominance – and hints that it can’t be helped — had time to develop even in the early days, weeks and months after the 2014 invasion. Even staunch defenders of Ukraine, and of the U.S. response to the Russian attacks, concede that the Obama administration might have been slow off the mark, caught by surprise and incredulous at how far Putin would go so quickly. The administration had still been hanging on to its shreds of hope for a “reset” with Russia, despite multiple signs that the leadership in Moscow was dismissive of this effort.

“We could have done more, we could have done it faster,” Fried said. “But it was a big shift for the Obama administration to go from trying to defend the reset to actually treating Russia as an aggressor.”

Rapid Invasion and Facts on the Ground

In 2014, events in Ukraine unfolded at lightning speed. Within five days of then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s disappearance from Ukraine on Feb. 22, 2014, amid the encamped demonstrations in Kyiv’s central square, Russia’s paramilitary “little green men” appeared in Crimea. Several days later, the Russian parliament approved Putin’s request to use force in Ukraine, ostensibly to protect Russian interests.

By March 16, Russia had organized a sham referendum in Crimea and declared that 97 percent of voters had approved it. The next day, the European Union and the U.S. imposed travel bans and asset freezes on several officials from Russia and Ukraine over the Crimea referendum.

The CIA, the NSA and British intelligence agencies “had been surprised by the speed and stealth of Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014,” wrote New York Times correspondent David Sanger in his new book, “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age,” excerpted this month in the Daily Beast.

On March 28, 2014, President Barack Obama urged Russia to “move back its troops” and reduce tensions. But the incursions spread. On April 7, pro-Russian protesters occupied government buildings in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence. Ukrainian authorities regained control of Kharkiv government buildings the next day, but Donetsk and Luhansk remain under the control of pro-Russian forces and their minders from Moscow to this day.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea “quickly created facts on the ground,” wrote Gwendolyn Sasse, a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a professor of comparative politics at Oxford University, in March 2017. “International law was violated, and subsequent Western sanctions have done little to change the situation.”

She notes that the narrative of Crimea’s “rightful place” in Russia is no longer limited to Russian circles.

While Western condemnation and sanctions continue, “it is generally accepted that a return of Crimea to Ukraine is impossible for the foreseeable future, at least not until the political dynamics have changed inside Russia – something that is unlikely to happen before 2024,” Sasse wrote. “Crimea is hardly mentioned in Western policy circles. It is deliberately left out of the protracted Minsk negotiations aimed at managing the war in the Donbas.”

A Bridge Apparently Not Too Far

Russia now controls more than 7 percent of Ukraine’s territory, and more than 10,000 people have been killed in the war in Donbas. And Russia’s hold on the territory only strengthens.

In May, Putin, a showman like Trump, personally drove a hefty orange dump truck across a new 12-mile bridge that Russia built across the Kerch Strait to create the first road connection between Crimea and the Russian mainland. A rail span is due to be completed in 2019. At a cost of $3.7 billion, it is the longest road-and-rail bridge in Europe, according to the Guardian. Bridge construction was led by a company owned by Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s judo sparring partner, who is under U.S. sanctions related to Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert criticized the bridge as “a reminder of Russia’s ongoing willingness to flout international law,” and lambasted Russia’s “unlawful seizure and its occupation of Crimea.”

Nauert alluded briefly to further events that are unfolding and will strengthen Russia’s chokehold on Ukraine. She noted that the bridge “impedes navigation by limiting the size of ships that can transit the Kerch Strait, the only path to reach Ukraine’s territorial waters in the Sea of Azov. We call on Russia not to impede this shipping.” And recent confrontations between Russian and Ukrainian naval vessels in the Sea of Azov suggest Russia may be trying to squeeze Ukraine’s sea access further.

Nauert also reaffirmed the country’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”  The EU did so again on July 9 in a summit with current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko before the NATO summit in Brussels. EU President Donald Tusk also said the union had expanded its visa ban because of the bridge and because Russia included Crimea in conducting its recent presidential election that gave Putin a fourth term in office.

As Western countries continue to object to Russian actions, talk nevertheless persists of the inevitability of Russian control over Crimea and even a possible deal. Fried said he’s heard some Europeans say privately they think Crimea is lost, but he doesn’t think they’d be inclined to recognize it officially. Italy and possibly the Greeks are among those who might agree, while Germany, Romania, the Baltic states and the Scandinavian countries are likely to stay firm on sanctions, he said. Even the authoritarian-leaning Hungarian government might balk at ceding ground to Russia, considering its Cold War experience.

In the U.S., Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, entertained a potential Ukrainian “peace deal” in January 2017, just as the president was taking office. It was floated by Russian-American businessman Felix Sater, who had helped Trump with business deals in Moscow, and crafted by an opposition member of Ukraine’s parliament, Andrii V. Artemenko. The peace proposal, which the Ukrainian government dismisses as unconstitutional and favorable to Moscow, would require Russia to withdraw its forces from eastern Ukraine, but allow a referendum on whether to lease Crimea to Russia for 50 or 100 years.

Accommodation or Condemnation?

Stephen Holmes, a law professor at New York University, is skeptical of the merits of any agreement with Russia built on its assurances of help on counterterrorism or potential actions in Syria, even aside from the ethical and political ramifications. Any such Russian promises are likely to be unreliable or unverifiable, he said.

Holmes and Fried also scoffed at Trump’s public reasoning that Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia because of language or ethnic ties. They noted the dubious history of such arguments and the logical conclusion that, because Americans speak English, the U.S. by rights would still belong to the British.

“The Sudeten Germans of Czechoslovakia spoke German,” said Fried. “That was Hitler’s argument for attacking Czechoslovakia.”

In the Balkans, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic used the argument that all ethnic Serbs deserved to live in one state to support separatists in Bosnia.

“You don’t make ethnicity an excuse for annexation,” Holmes said.

Rather, Trump seems most interested in the more sweeping goal of tearing down traditional alliances and the post-World War II international order, Holmes said.

“Conceding Crimea fits into the attack on the Western alliance,” Holmes said.

Refusing to recognize Putin’s land grabs in Ukraine is part of a long game that has served the U.S. well in the past. America’s refusal to recognize the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, was enshrined in the 1940 Welles Declaration by then-Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles. It repeatedly drew criticism as “an extravagant posture with no real-world consequences,” Fried said.

“For years, the Americans took it on the chin and were ridiculed by foreign policy realists and a lot of Europeans,” Fried said. “But in the end, that policy of non-recognition was vindicated, and the Baltics remember it. And what looked like an ideological extravagance, in retrospect looked like a principled position of which we’re all proud.”

Despite all of Trump’s talk of a shift on Crimea, others in the administration continue building on the policy of isolating Russia over its aggression. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl recently reported that the State Department is working on a statement similar to the Welles Declaration. This time, it would be issued by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Ukraine.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Viola Gienger

Washington Editor for Just Security and research scholar at NYU School of Law. You can follow her on Twitter (@violagienger).