Shortly after moving into the White House President Donald Trump instructed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to find a way to improve U.S.-Russia relations. However, one year later, despite Trump’s repeated statements that “only haters and fools” do not understand the value for America and humankind of maintaining good relations between the two major nuclear superpowers, Mr. Tillerson keeps insisting that that will be impossible until Moscow returns Crimea to Ukraine and stops aiding the Donbass region, which proclaimed its independence after the 2014 coup in which both the U.S. and the EU played an important if not crucial role.
Since, short of a major war with the U.S. or NATO, Russia won’t ever agree to these demands, they are tantamount to saying that U.S.-Russia relations are doomed for the foreseeable future.
The question is, why? Why is the U.S. so adamant about maintaining a permanent adversarial relationship with the one country on the planet with which it is imperative America carry on a constructive dialogue?
Regarding Crimea, the Russian flag has flown over this peninsula since 1783, as long as the U.S. has existed. In the 1850s, during the British, French, and Turkish invasion known as the Crimean War, America sent arms and munitions as well as engineers and doctors to help the Russians.
In the 1940s, nobody in the U.S. complained that Russia (or then, the USSR) was “occupying” Crimea when, as described by Lyle J. Goldstein of the U.S. Navy War College, defenders of the “Sevastopol fortress forced the Nazis to commit major forces that were then significantly battered just before the decisive battle at Stalingrad.”
Nor did anyone in Washington even notice when in 1954 Nikita Khrushchev, reportedly on a drunken whim, transferred Crimea from the Russian to the Ukrainian Republic within the Soviet Union. No one asked the population of Crimea whether they wanted to be transferred to Ukraine or not. The communist bosses did exactly what 19th century monarchs did when they transferred at their pleasure real estate together with its people from one noble house to another, no questions asked.
Those who know the situation on the ground can testify that the overwhelming majority of Crimeans never had considered themselves to be a part of Ukraine. So after the February 2014 unconstitutional removal of the corrupt but democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych they appealed for protection to Russian forces legally posted in Crimea. On March 16, 2014, Crimeans overwhelmingly voted to leave Ukraine and join – or rather, rejoin – Russia.
One could argue that this referendum was not conducted in strict accordance with the Ukrainian constitution, but during the unconstitutional coup one could hardly expect it to be. There are plenty of similar historical examples. One should also take into account the fact that the new power in Kiev was dominated by extreme nationalist elements (including neo-Nazis), whose first actions included cancelling Russian language rights in all Ukraine, including Crimea.
Critics of Russia’s action in Crimea also evidently forget NATO’s 2008 declaration that Ukraine (with Georgia) “will become members” of that alliance – a promise to which the post-coup regime in Kiev is still committed and which NATO has never rescinded. Russia could no more accept an American fleet at Sevastopol than the U.S. could tolerate the prospect of a Russian naval base on the Great Lakes.
Moscow also could not overlook the evidence of Washington’s direct interference in the Ukrainian coup dramatized by then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s leaked phone call virtually appointing the post-coup regime in Kiev, as well as NATO’s shredding international legal standards in the 1999 attack on Serbia and ramming through Kosovo’s 2008 independence declaration,
Donald Trump has the right instincts about potential benefits for America to patch things up with Russia but in view of U.S. foreign policy being hijacked by Congress (with its 15% approval, 73% disapproval ratings) he is forced to go beyond the very policies he once denounced, including approval of lethal weapons delivery to Kiev. How the possibility of reigniting large-scale fighting in eastern Ukraine benefits the U.S. is unclear, unless perhaps to provoke direct Russian action and justify an even more drastic response.
There’s also the question of how this impacts Ukraine, whose economy and its people’s standard of living keep crumbling while the incompetent, squabbling factions in control of Kiev are accused by the population of being even more corrupt than the previous rulers.
The solution for Ukraine is clear. It has been on the table since 2014, in variations put forward by Henry Kissinger among others. No NATO membership. Neutrality. Regional decentralization, perhaps federalization. Official status for the Russian language. That won’t return Crimea to Ukraine but it could perhaps reintegrate the Donbass, which Russia has pointedly declined to absorb, despite locals’ requests and Kiev’s refusal to implement self-rule under the moribund Minsk 2 agreement.
In any event, the solution depends not on additional arms shipments but on goodwill and dialogue, which are in short supply.
President Trump can rightfully claim huge success in his economic and other domestic policies. However, in the foreign policy arena vital to our national security not only is there no progress but even the most optimistic observers do not see the slightest glimpse of hope for the better.
And that is not good, as it may end with tragic results which all of us and even the bitterest enemies of Trump and Putin will regret.
• Edward Lozansky is President of the American University in Moscow. He was one of the founding members of the Science and Engineering Committee for a Secure World to support President Reagan’s SDI program. He is the author of the book Operation Elbe, which describes joint U.S.-Russia anti-terrorist efforts.