Among the dozens of questions facing the administration of President-elect Donald Trump — including, at its foremost, why Trump continues denigrating the American intelligence community in defense of Moscow’s electoral meddling — there’s one centering on post-Soviet sovereignty. That is: Will Trump go through with his hints at potentially recognizing Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea? Or will he maintain Washington’s policy of non-recognition?
At this point, it’s unclear what, or when, Trump will decide. When asked about potential recognition of Crimea in July 2016, Trump noted that he’d be willing to recognize the first annexation on the European landmass since World War II. “I’m going to take a look at it,” Trump said. Trump further claimed that “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”
Indeed, there’s little doubt that at least some residents of Crimea would have preferred Russian rule, especially in the immediate aftermath of Ukraine’s 2014 EuroMaidan Revolution. Trump appears unaware, however, that neither the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe nor any Western countries recognized Crimea’s “referendum” as either free or fair.
In fact, if Trump goes through with recognizing Russia’s claims in Crimea, he will be joining a select group of isolated regimes and post-Soviet autocracies. All told, a total of 13 other nations have joined Russia in either backing the Crimean “referendum” or in actively opposing measures supporting Ukraine’s territorial identity. In 2014, some 10 nations joined Moscow in opposing a non-binding resolution in United Nations that backed Ukraine’s territorial integrity: Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. (Numerous nations either abstained or were absent from the vote, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and China.)
During the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of southern Ukraine, a trio of other states issued statements supporting Moscow’s claims. Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry issued a statement — which it later removed, with little fanfare — supporting the Crimean referendum. (Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev is the only other leader to join Moscow in referring to Ukraine’s 2014 revolution as a “coup.”) Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai also supported Russia’s claims, while Kyrgyzstan joined Kazakhstan in backing the apparent validity of the Crimean vote.
This, then, is the company Trump would have the United States join in recognizing Russia’s claims to Crimea. However, he may receive substantial pushback from his inner circle. In addition to his pick for secretary of defense, who views Russia as a threat to be managed, Trump’s likely pick as director of national intelligence, Senator Dan Coats, recently introduced the Crimea Annexation Non-Recognition Act, “which would ensure that the United States does not recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea nor take any action that would imply such recognition.”
As such, it’s clear there are actors in Trump’s coming administration who would push back against Washington potentially recognizing Moscow’s claims in southern Ukraine. Whether they’ll be enough to deter Trump from his trend of appeasing Moscow remains to be seen.