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A nation must think before it acts.
Throughout his campaign, transition, and brief tenure in the White House, President Donald Trump has made no secret of his desire to repair ties with Vladimir Putin and Russia. One potential requirement for a “reset” may involve recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Such an act is often described in a condemning tone. Yet, what is the value of maintaining a policy of non-recognition?
What are the real effects of the policy? Non-recognition is a soft form of diplomatic pressure. In terms of pure power, it changes very little. It cannot reverse the annexation of Crimea, nor can it prohibit Russia from fortifying the peninsula. Nothing short of the voluntary withdrawal or forceful eviction of Russia’s military will return Crimea to Ukrainian control. Why, then, should the West pursue a policy grounded in explicit disregard of reality? When considering this question, an analogy may help Westerners understand the problem because the West has a long previous experience of implementing a policy similarly based on non-reality.
An appropriate analogy would be the non-recognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. This hard-fought policy barely survived the pressures of the Second World War when the Western Allies required Soviet involvement to defeat Germany. The Baltic states did not forcefully resist the Soviet invasion in 1939-40 in order to avoid futile bloodshed, which thereafter, in diplomatic terms, counted against them. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in particular, was concerned lest the Baltic question derail his plans for the establishment of the United Nations, an historical variable with no apparent counterpart today. The Soviet Union also actively sought to sway Western policies in favor of recognition throughout much of the Second World War and the Cold War as well. Nevertheless, few Western countries ever recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states.
Even the conditions surrounding the birth of the Baltic policy bear some similarities to today, as the West faces the strategic problem of ISIS even as Russia holds out its hand in an apparent offer of partnership against this foe. Ukraine did not offer armed resistance to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Yet, the conditions of the early 1940s were much more dire and demanding than circumstances today. The full story of the establishment of the West’s non-recognition policy of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states has been recounted by others, but certain other details salient to this analogy emerge.
First, the British in particular were willing throughout the war to recognize the Soviet annexation—but only as the seal affixed to a larger and much wider-ranging treaty, rather than as an enticement to achieve a treaty. Putting aside the moral question of recognizing an illegal annexation, this attitude at the very least showed a clear diplomatic understanding that concessions should be dearly sold rather than freely gifted. During the Second World War, Britain never received a benefit from the Soviet Union for which it was worth legally recognizing the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will understand this diplomatic point with regard to Crimea.
This understanding did not necessarily extend to the public, the source of some pressure to recognize the annexation of the Baltic states. During the Second World War, this pressure mainly stemmed from academic experts and politicians who argued vehemently in favor of recognition in the name of “realism” and friendship with the Soviet Union. AJP Taylor, EH Carr, and Walter Lippmann were all hostile to the Baltic states, as well as socialists like Stafford Cripps who were favorably inclined toward the Soviet Union. Across the West today, Russia is supporting political parties, including Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which are similarly sympathetic to Russia, to the point of recognizing the legality and legitimacy of the Russian annexation of Crimea.
The question of recognition has real consequences for the citizens of the area in question. In the Baltic case, in the immediate aftermath of the war, this issue determined the fate of approximately one million Balts who had fled their homes before the second arrival of the Soviet army. These were men and women whose return the Soviets demanded of the West, on the basis that they were Soviet citizens. The West refused on the basis of their non-recognition. Unlike Ukrainian and Belorussian displaced persons, who were forcibly repatriated, the Balts were given a choice. Only a small handful chose to return. Many have also fled Crimea, primarily Tatars, but for them, the question of non-recognition differs compared to the Balts. Tatars remain Ukrainian citizens, and Ukraine itself still exists although they have yet again been forcibly evicted by Russia from their homeland.
Beyond this immediate effect, the non-recognition of the Baltic annexation also gradually influenced Soviet attitudes. This policy weighed surprisingly heavily on the minds of the Soviet leadership and remained a constantly sensitive point. At times, the Soviet Union tried to condition other events on recognition, such as requiring that a Papal visit to the Soviet Union be preceded by recognition of Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic states. Western recognition had been a significant Soviet policy goal since 1940 and throughout the Cold War. Continuous Western refusal to recognize the Soviet annexation and propensity to denounce it throughout the Cold War left Soviet decision-makers feeling insecure in their de facto possession of the Baltic states. Outside of diplomatic gambits to trick the West into recognizing the annexation, however, it is unclear how much this insecurity may or may not have affected Soviet decision-making, even in the era of perestroika and glasnost. It was, however, a source of a constant encouragement for the Balts themselves, especially as they took the fateful steps to free themselves in the latter half of the 1980s.
Finally, and ironically, despite the long-sustained policy of non-recognition, when the Soviet Union finally fell apart, some Western countries, most prominently the United States, were actually slow to recognize the renascent Baltic states. Once the Baltic states reemerged, the United States initially shied away in favor of maintaining an intact Soviet Union which could then act as the United States’ partner on the international stage.
The similarities between the Baltic and Crimean cases are clear. Both were illegal, armed annexations made by Russia in the face of no local armed resistance at a time when the West was focusing on a much different strategic problem. Concurrently, Russia sought to leverage its role as a third party to that problem to gain recognition of its actions. Numerous Western public figures—academics and politicians—sided with Russia over the West in each case as well.
It is also important to acknowledge the differences between the Baltic and Crimean cases, as these may influence the effects of a policy of non-recognition. Ukraine was not wiped off the map, unlike the Baltic states. The offense is, in a sense, smaller in 2014 than in 1940. The surviving overseas representatives of the Baltic states had to fight to preserve the legal continuity of their respective states for fifty years. The Ukrainian polity does not face such an existential problem.
Moreover, Putin has sought to raise Crimea’s profile in the Russian psyche, suggesting that it was a holy place for Russian history, religiosity, and culture—Russia’s Temple Mount. This attempt at cultural branding has been unsuccessful so far, given that Kyiv, not Muscovy, was the original seat of Slavic religion and culture; nevertheless, it highlights the apparent importance with which the Kremlin views Crimea. The Baltic states had never been ancient Slavic lands or held in such high public esteem by the Soviet leadership, a factor which may have made their breakaway easier to bear. However, this lack of mythical connection was perhaps counterbalanced by the Baltic states’ status as the Soviet Union’s own border with the West, as well as with the Russian perception that the Baltic states were still culturally Western even during the Cold War.
Will non-recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea have the same effect as the past policy of non-recognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states? The problem with analogies concerning policy issues is the lack of information, as details of the future are fundamentally unknowable. Baltic non-recognition lasted fifty years, whereas, at the time of writing, the policy of not recognizing the annexation of Crimea has yet to enjoy its third birthday. Effects generated by a policy of non-recognition might only be felt one, two, or even more generations into the future; therefore, one may only speculate on the potential consequences.
Even after many generations, any effects derived from such a policy will always be soft—without any coercive or compellent power whatsoever. This is unavoidable. But among such soft effects are important legal and emotional considerations, such as a ready-made basis for reintegration of the region, while the cost of maintaining such a policy is commensurately low. World history does demonstrate that strong national feelings towards certain patches of land can last for not just a few generations, but for centuries or even millennia.
In the end, Russia is hardly likely to alter its behavior because of recognition or non-recognition of the annexation of Crimea. One may anticipate that policy effects will only finally be felt if a future analogous to the fall of the Soviet Union comes. A sustained policy of non-recognition may, in such circumstances, embolden Ukraine to retake what was once its own. At the same time, the West might once again be hesitant about such a move despite having sustained non-recognition, in favor of stability over justice. In the meantime, there are few disadvantages to maintaining the policy of non-recognition, which additionally supports the established world order which has been so relatively advantageous to the West over the past seventy years. If the Trump administration is serious about restoring relations with Russia, it should still maintain non-recognition as a politically low cost option because it does not impinge on Russia in real terms, but still leaves the United States on the right side of justice and open to potential countervailing future developments.