Staunton, April 20 – The US Department of State has declared that Washington will never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but such declarations, important as they are, need to be given real content to ensure that no part of the government, intentionally or otherwise, takes steps that undermine that policy.
In short, what is needed now is a new non-recognition policy. That is all the more important now given continuing Russian meddling in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet space.
Given all that has happened since Moscow’s seizure and annexation of Crimea, it may seem to some that any such call has been overtaken by events. But in fact, continuing Russian aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere in the former Soviet space make it even more important.
The immediate danger of not having such a clearly defined and articulated policy was highlighted earlier this month when the Voice of America put up on its website — and then fortunately took down — a map showing Crimea not as an internationally recognized part of Ukraine but as part of the Russian Federation whose government under Vladimir Putin has engineered its annexation by force and the threat of force.
But the larger dangers are even greater.
Since at least 1932, it will be recalled, the United States has maintained as a matter of principle that it will not recognize changes in international borders achieved by the use of force unless or until they are sanctioned international agreement. That doctrine was enunciated by Henry L. Stimson, the US secretary of state at the time, in response to Japan’s seizure of China’s Manchuria province and subsequent creation of the puppet state of Manchukuo.
While the US has not always adhered to this doctrine has not always been followed, it has never denounced or disowned it. And in one case, its articulation and maintenance helped right a terrible wrong and contributed to a most positive outcome.
The most forceful expression of the Stimson Doctrine was US non-recognition policy regarding the Soviet seizure of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1940 under the terms of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Hitler and Stalin.
On July 23, 1940, US Undersecretary of State Sumner Wells declared that the Baltic countries had been “deliberately annihilated by one of their more powerful neighbors” and that the US would continue to stand by its principle in their defense “because of the conviction of the American people that unless the doctrine in which these principles are inherent once again governs the relations between nations, the rule of reason, of justice and of law – in other words, the basis of modern civilization itself – cannot be preserved.”
That declaration was given content by a policy that the United States followed until 1991 when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania escaped from Soviet occupation and recovered their de facto independence, a policy that included among other things, provisions that the US would maintain ties with the diplomatic representatives of the pre-1940 Baltic governments and that the Baltic flags would continue to fly at the State Department, that no map produced by the United States government would show the Baltic states as a legitimate part of the USSR but would carry the disclaimer that the US did not recognize their forcible incorporation, and that no senior US official would visit the Baltic countries while they were under Soviet occupation.
It is important to remember what such policies did not mean. Neither the Stimson Doctrine nor Baltic Non-Recognition Policy called for American military action to liberate occupied territories, but both provided enormous encouragement to the peoples of these occupied areas that they would at some point once again be free and thus reflected the principles and values of the American people.
Why shouldn’t such a policy be announced now? There are three main objections, none of which withstands examination. The first is that the US has not always lived up to its doctrines either in its own actions or in its willingness to denounce the use of force to change borders. Washington did not issue such a policy after the Soviet invasion of Georgia in 2008, for example; why should it do so now? But arguing that past mistakes should be repeated just because they were made once is hardly compelling.
Second, it is said that Crimea is only part of a country and therefore a non-recognition policy regarding it couldn’t look exactly like Baltic non-recognition policy. That is true. A new non-recognition policy would not include maintaining ties with any pre-occupation government but it could keep senior American officials from visiting the peninsula and include continuing US recognition of Ukrainian passports of the residents of that peninsula, much as the US did in the case of holders of pre-1940 Baltic passports. Arguing that you can’t get everything and therefore should do nothing, a suggestion made all too often of late, isn’t very compelling either.
And third, it is maintained that Putin isn’t Stalin and that the US shouldn’t anger him because we have so many concerns in common. Tragically, some US officials have even insisted that Putin shouldn’t take anything we say or do about Ukraine “personally.” That is absurd. Putin is the aggressor in Crimea and Ukraine more generally. If we make him uncomfortable, we are only doing the minimum to live up to our principles.
Moreover, despite what Moscow suggests and some of its supporters in the West say, some future Russian leader or even Putin himself will cooperate with us when he or they see it is in their interest. US non-recognition policy regarding the Baltic countries did not prevent the US and Stalin’s USSR from becoming allies against Hitler or the US and later Soviet leaders from cooperating. Again, the objections fall away.
It is thus time for a new non-recognition policy so that at a minimum no one will ever see a map of Ukraine put out by the US government that shows part of that country belonging to another.