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On July 25, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a “Crimea Declaration,” stating that “the United States reaffirms as policy its refusal to recognize the Kremlin’s claims of sovereignty over territory seized by force in contravention of international law” and “rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.” The statement was modeled on and referred specifically to the “Welles Declaration” of 1940, in which the US rejected Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic Republics, a policy that remained in place throughout the Cold War. Pompeo’s declaration raises three important questions. Why was the statement issued now, rather than earlier, or not at all? What is the significance of the parallel with the Welles Declaration of 1940? How will it shape US policy toward Ukraine and Russia?
Calls for a statement similar to the Welles Declaration have been made by several commentators since 2014. We do not know how long the declaration was in preparation or what kind of debate was held within the Trump administration over whether such a statement should be made at all. It seems, however, that both the statement and its timing were driven by the recent Trump–Putin meeting in Helsinki and the concerns it raised about concessions Trump might have made on Ukraine. It appears intended to reassure the domestic US audience, and the Republican Congress in particular, that behind the contradictions and provocations of the president’s tweets and press conference statements lies a steady and responsible foreign policy. A different interpretation is that the statement was intended by the foreign policy establishment to make it harder for Trump to make a deal with Putin. In sum, it may have been primarily an exercise in damage control after the Helsinki Summit.
The chaos that currently characterizes US foreign policy makes it difficult to know which declarations matter and which ones do not. With Trump’s supine performance in Helsinki one week, and the “Crimea Declaration” the next, it is hard to know if either of these represents US policy, or whether the goal is simply to give every audience something it likes and ignore the contradictions.
However, what is important here is that, beyond the President himself, support in the US for the policy enunciated in the “Crimea Declaration” is robust. Almost the entire Republican establishment was appalled by the Helsinki summit and the Democratic party, historically the more conciliatory party on Russia, has been strongly anti-Putin. This is why Putin preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton. While the US Congress is badly divided on nearly every important issue, it is nearly unanimous in supporting a resolute line against Russian aggression.
Whatever the reason for the timing of the announcement, the explicit linkage with the Welles Declaration signals a definitive long-term policy of the US government. The US maintained its refusal to recognize Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic States for a half century. This represents both good and bad news for Ukraine’s efforts to regain Crimea. While Welles did not know in 1940 how long the Soviets would control the Baltics, the fact that the policy was in place for such a long time implies that the US intends to maintain this policy for the long run. Especially given the fears that the US or some of its allies are ready to cut a deal with Russia at the expense of Ukraine, that is slightly reassuring.
However, the precedent of the Welles Declaration is worse news for Ukraine in other respects. The Soviet occupation lasted for 50 years, briefly interrupted by the German occupation. A great deal of repression was inflicted upon the people of the Baltic states in that half-century. While the US did not recognize Soviet sovereignty over the Baltics, it did not (and probably could not) do much to free them.
The US non-recognition of Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic States did not prevent the US from allying with the Soviet Union in World War II, or in pursuing “détente” in the 1970s. If the US decides it wants to warm relations with Russia, it can probably do so while maintaining its non-recognition of Russian control of Crimea. The Declaration may, therefore, become a symbol of US resistance that US leaders can point to even as they restore a “normal” relationship with Russia.
The Baltic states won back their sovereignty due to their own tenacious resistance to Soviet repression and to the eventual softening of that repression in the late 1980s, not due to any external pressure from the US or anyone else. If we follow the Baltic model, Crimea’s return to Ukraine would be predicated upon a strong internal Crimean movement to reverse annexation and active efforts by Ukraine (considering Crimea as part of Ukraine), combined with the loss of Russian appetite to suppress opposition.
In thinking about how the “Crimea Declaration” will shape US policy toward Ukraine and Russia, the history of the Welles Declaration does not take us far. The importance of the policy was most visible toward the end of the Soviet era, when the US supported the independence of the Baltic states, but otherwise supported keeping the Soviet Union (including Ukraine as part of it) intact.
Ultimately, just as the Welles Declaration makes for a footnote in the history of US-Soviet relations, the “Crimea Declaration” will likely be a footnote in US-Russian relations. It will be cited by those who seek a strong US line against Russia, and ignored by those who do not, but it will not drive or even constrain policy. For Ukraine, the relevant historical example is not the Welles Declaration of 1940, but the Budapest Declaration of 1994, and the lessons it teaches us.