Staunton, June 25 – In 1940, consistent with the principle that territorial changes achieved by force alone would not be recognized, the US took the lead in articulating a non-recognition policy concerning the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and for the next 50 years, it maintained that policy until the Baltics recovered their de facto independence.
Now, in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea, it is the European Union that is taking the lead in putting in place a real non-recognition policy about that illegal act by putting in place specific rules on how it will deal with goods produced in or passing through Crimea.
In a Twitter post on June 23, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said that the European Union “decided on banning any imports from Crimea not approved by Kyiv … as a signal about possible further measure to be taken in the struggle with the illegal occupation.”
The decision came at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg which also discussed possible additional sanctions against the Russian Federation for its role in the occupation, subversion and destabilization of Ukraine.
Given the criticism the EU has received for not being as willing as the US to sanction Moscow, EU action on the occupation of Crimea is important for three reasons. First, it moves beyond declarative language to put in place a set of actions that underscore the European Union’s commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
All too many countries in the West appear to have accepted Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea as a fait accompli about which there is nothing anyone can do at least in the near term and shifted their focus to Putin’s subversion of Donetsk, Luhansk and other parts of Ukraine where the Russian efforts at destabilization continue.
The EU’s action underscores that the occupation of Crimea is both continuing and illegal and that Kyiv’s sovereignty over it must be reaffirmed by members of the international community – even if it may be some time before the aggressor withdraws. The fact that the Russian occupation may be long is all the more reason for such policies.
Second, it serves notice to Moscow almost more than anything could that the borders of the Russian Federation themselves are illegitimate if they include — as Putin now insists — Crimea. That narrowly-crafted legal doctrine of non-recognition in this case, as in the Baltic one, thus highlights a reality few have been willing to admit.
It shows that a state like Putin’s Russian Federation which is built on the seizure of territory from other internationally-recognized states can never be fully legitimate in the eyes of the world until it withdraws from its conquests. For 50 years, that was at the core of US non-recognition policy on the Baltics. Let us hope it will not take Moscow as long now to withdraw.
And third, the EU policy is important for the people of Crimea. It makes it clear that Western countries will not forget what has happened to them and their land, that there is a way forward besides bending their knees to the Russian occupation, and that just as in the case of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, they will eventually see their rightful status restored.
It is long past time for other countries in the West to follow the EU’s lead on this point and to craft a non-recognition policy regarding Putin’s seizure of Crimea not so that anyone can feel morally self-satisfied but rather so that Crimea will not be forgotten and so that it will eventually again become de facto what it has not ceased to be de jure – a legal part of Ukraine.