Donald Trump presents an oversized target for anyone who wants to attack him for poor knowledge of international politics. His most recent remarks on Russia and Ukraine, on ABC’s “This Week,” have again invited sharp criticism because they are so far removed from the U.S. government’s official line. But they are not as ignorant as many think: Like much that Trump says, they represent a politically incorrect dissenting view that bears some analysis.
Here’s what Trump said about Putin:
“He’s not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.”
When George Stephanopoulos tried to correct him, saying Putin was already there, Trump conceded, “OK, well, he’s there in a certain way.”
Russia, as most of the world knows, has seized Crimea and sent troops into eastern Ukraine — a fact that has been confirmed numerous times and is trackable through Russian soldiers’ accounts on social networks. The fighting in eastern Ukraine, incidentally, has flared up again in recent months. Almost every day, several Ukrainian soldiers die. More than 600 of them have lost their lives so far this year. “In a certain way”? That must be the understatement of the year.
Trump also breezily stated that “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.” One wonders how he knows that. Last February, the Ukrainian arm of the German market research firm GfK attempted what is, to my knowledge, the only independent post-annexation survey of Crimeans’ attitude toward their sudden change of nationality. But the collected data was unreliable because the researchers conducted their survey over landlines; people would have been too wary of being overheard to speak their minds. The poll showed they were happy for Crimea to be part of Russia — but it’s not clear whether any other result would have been possible given Russian secret intelligence’s special attention to the peninsula.
There is some anecdotal evidence that Crimeans had expected more from Russia. It was in Crimea that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev delivered, in response to a retiree’s question about when pensions would be indexed to inflation, a now infamous breezy reply: “There’s no money, but you hang on there, I wish you good health and a happy mood.” Yet there’s no way to find out whether locals would vote differently in a fair referendum today than Russia said they voted in a disgracefully rigged one in March 2014.
But something Trump said immediately afterward holds up better:
“And that’s under the Obama’s administration, with his strong ties to NATO. So with all of these strong ties to NATO, Ukraine is a mess. Crimea has been taken. Don’t blame Donald Trump for that.”
Though many Americans don’t realize it, that was a bull’s-eye. In February, the Ukrainian parliament published the transcript of a Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council meeting that took place on Feb. 28, 2014. The Kiev authorities knew Russia was preparing something in Crimea — and they decided not to fight it. One reason was that the Ukrainian army had been weakened by years of thievery and consequent underfunding. Another was that Western powers advised Ukraine against fighting back. As Valentin Nalyvaichenko, then head of Ukraine’s intelligence service, put it at the meeting, “Americans, Germans, all of them as one are asking us not to make any active moves because, according to their intelligence services, Putin would use it to start a large-scale land invasion.”
The U.S. stood by, and unofficially asked Ukraine to stand by, as Russia took Crimea. In reply, the U.S. targeted some officials from Putin’s inner circle, broke off talks on visa liberalization and some military matters and banned certain technology exports to Russia — a weak set of measures that was expanded to include capital market restrictions for state-owned Russian companies only after pro-Russian rebels shot down a passenger plane over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. Those restrictions — the only component of the sanctions that is unpleasant to Putin and his regime — would be lifted if Russia and Ukraine carry out a cease-fire agreement reached in Minsk last February, an agreement brokered by Germany and France, with no U.S. participation.
U.S. officials cannot say publicly that they let Russia take Crimea unopposed to prevent a large-scale invasion of the rest of Ukrainian territory. It didn’t quite work: Putin is in Ukraine “in a certain way.” But an invasion like the one in Georgia in 2008 did not take place.
Nor can Ukrainian officials say openly that the U.S. and Europe, despite continuing to pay lip service to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, have de-facto acquiesced in Crimea’s annexation. That would be disloyal toward the Western allies, who are propping up the current Kiev government with loans and technical assistance.
Trump, on the other hand, has no qualms about saying openly what he thinks. His statements amount to no more than former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — not a political naif — has been saying ever since the invasion:
“Nobody in the West has offered a concrete program to restore Crimea. Nobody is willing to fight over eastern Ukraine. That’s a fact of life. So one could say we don’t have to accept it, and we do not treat Crimea as a Russian territory under international law — just as we continued to treat the Baltic states as independent throughout Soviet rule.”
The difference between the official U.S. policy, which will probably continue under Hillary Clinton if she is elected, and the public statements of Trump (and Kissinger, with whom Trump has met during the election campaign) is mainly in the rhetoric — and in the stated willingness, or lack thereof, to re-establish a working relationship with Moscow sooner rather than later. Trump’s statements on Ukraine reflect a school of thought in the Republican mainstream, a realpolitik approach that many in Europe — where patience is fraying with the anti-Russian sanctions — would welcome.
Clinton, who has a long-standing, respectful relationship with Kissinger, will probably be exposed to his views on Ukraine, too. She may eventually ignore them, but that doesn’t justify all the raised eyebrows about Trump’s Ukraine remarks.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Bloomberg View contributor, is a Berlin-based writer.