Staunton, April 8 – The United States and the West must put in place an updated version of the non-recognition policy they applied to the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to underscore our outrage at the use of Russian brute force in Ukraine to annex part or all of a neighboring state and to show that we will never recognize the results of such force.
By doing so, we would be sending a powerful message that such actions put those who engage in them beyond the pale and that we will stand with the victims, for decades if that is what it takes, to see their independence recovered and their freedom restored. Such steps impose a badge of shame on the aggressors and a badge of honor for the victims and the West.
The need for such a clearly articulated policy is clear. US State Department officials have already said that the United States will never recognize Russia’s occupation of Crimea, but such statements will have little or no meaning if US government agencies act as if Crimea were already part of the Russian Federation.
Tragically, that appears to be happening. A map issued by the Voice of America this week shows Crimea to be no longer part of Ukraine. While it doesn’t specify that Crimea is part of the Russian Federation, the colors used suggest that that is what the mapmaker thinks is the case.
There is a very good way to prevent this from happening, and it is one Washington had 50 years of experience with: a non-recognition policy with respect to Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that was not simply declarative but that had real content, including but not limited to statements on US government maps that the US did not recognize the forcible incorporation of the three into the USSR.
When Stalin, on the basis of the secret protocols of his Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler, occupied the Baltic countries in 1940, he used many of the same tactics Vladimir Putin has employed in Crimea. And many in the West assumed there was nothing we could do to reverse this aggression, that we had to get used to it, look at “the bigger picture” and move on.
But some American officials, led by Loy Henderson of the State Department, realized how dangerous and subversive of American interests that would be. Drawing on the 1930 Stimson Doctrine which rejected any border changes created by force alone, Henderson argued that the US could not recognize what the Soviets had done in the Baltics.
He was backed by President Franklin Roosevelt, and the policy, which involved maintaining ties with the diplomats of the pre-war governments, not allowing senior US officials to travel to these occupied countries, and indications on all government maps that the US did not recognize their occupation, among other things formally lasted until 1991.
Throughout those 50 years, the flags of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania flew at the State Department — and all US government-produced maps indicated that Washington did not recognize their incorporation by the Soviet Union. Despite the evolving relationship between the US and the USSR, such measures served to inspire those living under the occupation that they would one day again be free.
Equally important, these measures represented as a badge of honor for the United States, an indication that principles matter and that small countries must never be sacrificed by large ones in the name of the bigger picture or because standing up for them might anger the dictators who rule some large ones.
US non-recognition policy did not achieve its final aims until 1991, just over 50 years after it was articulated. In the current media and political climate, it might not have lasted that long, given the ever shorter attention spans of publics and politicians and a 24/7 news cycle which asks why hasn’t something been solved before the second commercial.
But work it did. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were inspired by this, they achieved their independence earlier and in a quite different way than did the Soviet republics, they are well-functioning democracies with free market economies, and they are now proud members of NATO and the European Union.
Non-recognition policy was not the only factor involved, but it played a role. And now there is a very real need for a new non-recognition policy, one that makes it very clear, not only in occasional official statements but on maps and in diplomatic practice that the US and the West as a whole will never recognize the forcible incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation.
Maps as always are a good place to start: the VOA map should be redrawn and replaced with one that shows the true facts of the case: Another dictator has occupied part of the territory of neighboring state, and the Western democracies won’t ever recognize or forget that aggression, however long it takes.