You’d think that the journalists’ question would be an easy one to answer. 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.
So how did Trump answer? “We’re going to have to see,” he said.
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.
And guess what? As far as the language issue goes, he’s right. Russian has long been the common language in Crimea, even if ethnic Russians only make up about 65 percent of the population. (About 12 percent are indigenous Crimean Tatars, while the rest are mostly Ukrainians and other Slavs.) And yes, the predominance of Russian does reflect the fact that Crimea became part of the Russian Empire in 1783, leaving Russian control only in 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed it over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Putin’s (and Trump’s) logic is simple enough: If the people in a place speak mostly Russian, and if it once belonged to Russia at some point, then Moscow has every right to come in and take it over again.
But this is a false simplicity, one that comes at the price of many sins of omission. There are many places in the world that contain large numbers of Russian speakers. Kazakhstan, Moldova, Belarus, and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the Caucasus all fall into this category — yet these are sovereign nations and fully recognized members of the United Nations. So, too, are the three Baltic states, which are now part of NATO and the European Union. Is Putin entitled to take territory from any of them as he sees fit? What about New York City’s Brighton Beach, where you often hear more Russian than English on the streets? Or what about Israel?
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).
So what if a majority in Crimea really did sincerely want to be part of Russia? Given the demographics of the place, that’s quite possible. (It’s worth noting that Crimea already enjoyed extremely broad autonomy even under Ukrainian rule.) Yet that doesn’t change the simple fact that Moscow stole the territory away from Ukraine, thereby setting a profoundly destructive precedent in defiance of every established principle of post-World War II international law. 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.” This sort of thinking flies in the face of a modern global order that aspires to respect the rights of countries large and small.
Yet many 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.