Staunton, January 15 – Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, commenting on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, says that “we will never accept the change of borders by force. Neither now nor in this century nor in this millennium.” But she adds that there should not be any limitson political dialogue with Moscow concerning the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis.
This position, she says, “does not mean that we must not talk. We must talk, and the Ukrainians also must talk with the Russians. And my role,” Mogherini says, “does not mean that I must be soft, but even to be tough, I must talk.”
And this position about border changes means, she continues, that the sanctions the EU has imposed “are connected with the situation on the ground. Therefore sanctions can be changed depending on the situation and either reduced or increased. Or not changed at all if there are no changes.”
The EU position is, of course, welcome: it demonstrates that Brussels remains in step with the United States whose leaders have also declared that they will never recognize the forcible annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation. But it may have one consequence that few in the West are thinking about now.
By basing its position on the principle, known as the Stimson Doctrine, that countries must “never accept the change of borders by force,” the EU position may open the door to an idea that has been circulation in the Russian blogosphere in recent days – namely, the possibility of having another referendum in Crimea with international observers present.
Were such a referendum to be held and were it to be declared to have met international standards, something many in Europe might be inclined to do, that would open the door to two developments that would threaten rather than strengthen the international order that Mogherini says she is defending.
On the one hand, such a new referendum could be presented by those in the West who want to restart relations with Moscow as the basis for recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, even though no referendum now, given the way in which the occupation has created new facts on the ground of that Ukrainian peninsula, could ever be truly legitimate.
And on the other, by implicitly raising such a possibility in the case of Crimea, Mogherini intentionally or not may have encouraged still more reckless actions by Putin. He may believe that he can invade and occupy parts or all of neighboring countries and then gain the acquiescence of the West which will be encouraged to “look beyond” any particular crime.
Those dangers point to the need for the elaboration of a more carefully crafted policy of non-recognition of the Russian Anschluss of Crimea. That action violated not only the Stimson Doctrine but also Russia’s own commitments in the Budapest Memorandum and other post–1991 agreements.
The West’s policy of non-recognition of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania ultimately worked not just because it rejected any acceptance of the use of force to change international boundaries but because it insisted that the governments that occupation overthrew remained de jure if not de facto in office.
Western countries should be crafting a similar non-recognition policy now, one that doesn’t give Putin a loophole which the Kremlin leader is all too likely to jump through given the large number of people in Western capitals who want to find “a way forward” in which Putin can “save face.”