Inside the U.S. government there is virtual unanimity on the question of Crimea, the Ukrainian region invaded and abruptly annexed by Russia in 2014: It was an egregious act of aggression and, as the first forcible transnational seizure of territory in Europe since World War II, should never be accepted by the United States.
There’s just one exception to this consensus: President Trump.
Since his presidential campaign, Trump has repeatedly said — most recently, to the other leaders of the Group of Seven democracies — that Crimea ought to be part of Russia because a majority of its people are Russian-speaking and, as he put it in 2016, “would rather be with Russia.” When Trump was asked about reports he might acknowledge Russian sovereignty over Crimea in his upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the president teasingly told reporters, “We’re going to have to see.”
In fact the likelihood of such a surrender looks small, for the moment. The White House last week reiterated the official position that U.S. sanctions on Russia “will remain in place until Russia returns Crimea to the Ukraine”; and Putin’s own spokesman said the issue would not be on the agenda. (Inside the administration, there’s far greater concern that Trump will hand Putin a victory in Syria, but that’s another story.)
The Crimean question nevertheless tells us three things about Trump 18 months into his presidency: His crude and uninformed policy positions consistently outlast staff opposition and efforts at reasonable persuasion; this is particularly true when it comes to appeasement of Putin; and the steady growth of Trump’s personal authority inside the White House and the Republican Party means that even on issues where he is a minority of one, he can compel his followers to line up behind him.
The case of Crimea is particularly stark because, unlike that of Iran or even trade tariffs, where Trump’s shifts of U.S. policy have at least some support, there’s really been no debate until now about Russia’s land grab among foreign policy experts, or, apart from a handful of outliers, members of Congress. A bill codifying U.S. sanctions against Russia for the invasion passed both houses by veto-proof majorities, including 98 to 2 in the Senate.
The logic here is pretty simple. Whether or not Crimea is historically more bound to Russia (which deeded it to Ukraine in 1954), or its residents prefer authoritarian rule from Moscow to Ukraine’s democracy (a referendum staged by Putin on the question was grossly unfair), to accept that such factors justify armed aggression would return Europe to the jungle that produced two world wars. By Trump’s logic, Putin would have cause to seize the parts of Latvia and Estonia that are Russian-speaking, not to mention Belarus and Kazakhstan.
To be sure, there’s little prospect that Russia can be induced to return Crimea to Ukraine anytime soon. But rather than give up, the State Department has been working on a formal policy statement comparable to the 1940 Welles Declaration, which stipulated that the United States would never accept Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. That stance was vindicated half a century later when the Balts regained independence. Now, if Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has his way, the same red line will be drawn for Crimea.
Yet there was Trump, telling German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and the rest of G-7 last month that Russia should be readmitted to the group, which expelled it in March 2014 because of the Crimea invasion. Aides were chagrined but not particularly surprised: Trump has been saying the same thing to them since last year. More than one has tried to educate the president out of his folly; one strategem has been to tell Trump that since he blames Barack Obama for allowing the Russian annexation, he shouldn’t accept it.
Yet as on trade, Trump has proved impervious to facts, logic and even appeals to his political interests. In the case of trade tariffs, it’s easy to trace that intransigence to prejudices Trump has publicly espoused since the 1980s. On Crimea, which Trump may not have heard of before 2014, his motivation is opaque. Perhaps special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will eventually provide an explanation.
What’s striking, for now, is the degree to which Trump, as he converts the Republican Party into a cult of personality, has begun to turn around even such one-sided questions. Last week, just over a year after the Senate passed that bill writing Crimean sanctions into law — so that it would be harder for Trump to lift them — seven of its Republican members were in Moscow to express hope for “a new day” coming out of the Putin-Trump meeting, as Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) put it. What changed? Surely not the U.S. national interest.