Russia’s Never Giving Back Crimea, So Why Did Trump Say He Expected Them To?

Intro: A Bit About Why I Choose Certain Topics

I’ve had at least three different people I know in real life (outside of my family!) mention that they liked something they saw in my blog. I had no idea people actual read this, so I’m going to try to post a bit more. Thank you for reading!

I have this problem where all the things in the news that I find most interesting, and therefore want to write about, are the things no one really talks about or cares about, and I know it. Sometimes it’s because political writing (and news consumerism!) is slowly devolving into a tabloid enterprise, but sometimes it’s because I just nerd out too much about geopolitics, beyond its actual importance to everyday life. This is why I unduly focus on the Middle East, East Asia, and Russia.

Even so, the things I find interesting in the news are the things that are truly unexpected, things that actually bend or reshape existing trends. Domestic politics offers almost none of this, except for the occasional electoral college upset. Once in office, Donald Trump has spoken worse than I had hoped, but almost all the ink spilled these days is about that. His actual domestic policy initiatives have been unsurprising, and therefore rather uninteresting to me. Don’t get me wrong, I do pay attention to them, but I only have so many hours in a day.

Donald Trump saying something undiplomatic is very expected. That “something” getting blown out of proportion is also expected. The specific content might be unexpected, but these general trends are well established, so I don’t pay much attention to the parry-and-thrust of the narrative wars on this subject, and I have little memory for it, which makes it hard to participate even when I want to. Some of his calls and tweets to foreign leaders have been a bit interesting, but it’s hard to assess what’s real policy and what’s bluster, whether there actually are “head fakes” or “4D chess” occurring (I still don’t think so, but I sure do hope so, because that is preferable to flailing chaos).

Donald Trump exempting Russia from even mild attack is very par-for-the-course, also, so it was interesting to see in this Reuters article last week that he expected Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine. He even Tweeted on the subject, reinforcing my impression that American politics, from top to bottom, has become less about solving problems and more about who can most convincingly blame the other party:

Why Is This Interesting?

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the Implication

Assertion: Donald Trump has made an unrealistic demand.
Questions: Does he know it or not? Why did he do this?

My Attempt at Brief, Unbiased Background, If You’re Unfamiliar With the Crimea Situation

What is Crimea?

Crimea is a peninsula off of the southern part of the nation of Ukraine, jutting out into the Black Sea:

crimea
Image courtesy of Google Maps

It’s a little more than 3 times the area of New Jersey, with about a quarter as many people.

What’s going on with Crimea?

Crimea is not independent: ownership rights are currently disputed between Ukraine and Russia. Actual control is currently exercised by Russia, following a military invasion, and a vote by Crimeans to join Russia in 2014 (Edit: added link. Warning: coarse language) (more on that in a bit). It was a big story/crisis in early 2014, until ISIS got big in the summer and then people forgot about it.

How did Crimea become disputed?

Crimea has some history as part of both countries. Crimea had bouts of its own independence and dominion by various empires until it became part of Russia in 1783.

This lasted with only small interruptions until 1954, when the Soviet Union, which ruled over both Russia and Ukraine as subject republics, transferred Crimea to Ukrainian ownership. This was no big deal, because the Soviet Union would last forever.

But it didn’t, of course. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine and Russia became separate sovereign nations again, Crimea remained part of Ukraine, and remained that way with little argument until 2014.

In that year, there was a successful revolution in Ukraine to overthrow president Yanukovich, a president whom the Russians liked and supported. Russia expressed concern about the tide of Ukrainian nationalism, anti-Russian sentiment and the safety of the overall Russian minority in Ukraine. Crimea, along with some of the eastern parts of Ukraine, has a majority of Russian-speakers, with 65% Russian, 16% Ukrainian, and 12% Tatar

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Boil ’em mash ’em, stick ’em in a stew

Thanks for asking, Gollum. They were at one time a dominant native ethnic group. Anyway, these current demographics owe to Crimea’s prior history as a Russian province, and, depending whom you ask, historical ethnic cleansing. Putin, with a veneer of deniability, directed his military forces to take control of the peninsula, and, following a propaganda blitz, a vote was taken to leave Ukraine and join Russia.

There are plenty of precedents for territories voting for their own independence, but less so for directly joining a neighboring nation. Combine this with the dubious information tactics, the use of force, and the potential for vote-rigging, and the legitimacy of this secession becomes questionable.

Why does it matter to an American?

Mainly because of the potential for conflict with a major power. We do not have any specific commitment to defend Ukraine, although Russia did agree in the 90’s to respect Ukraine’s territory. Do we allow Russia to violate agreements and take territory from neighbors? If we allow it, where will it stop? If we don’t allow it, how do we approach it without accidentally ending the world?

Could we even return Crimea back into Ukrainian control, if we tried?

I don’t think so at this point. The military option contains too much risk (nuclear escalation) for too little gain (returning a small chunk of land to a non-ally). embargo

Maybe if the West had imposed a total embargo on Russia back in 2014, Putin would have caved, but the E.U. couldn’t stomach that because they need oil and natural gas imports from Russia. The world has pretty much moved on by now, and by the end of the Trump presidency, Crimea will be firmly established as a status quo Russian province, and Russia is pretty unequivocal that they consider it theirs now.

Finally Enter Trump: What’s going on in that big ol’ melon of his?

So why the extreme shift in Trumps’s rhetoric on this issue, from no demands to implausible demands? Whether or not you believe any conspiracy theories about him, Donald Trump has, objectively, the most Russia-friendly policies of any president in generations. He questions the importance of NATO and the value of its defense commitments, he lets Russia mostly have their way in Syria, he has barely talked about the Ukraine conflict except to criticize Obama, and expressed little desire to expand or maintain sanctions on Russia. Really the only thing on his plate that is inconvenient for Russia is expanding the US energy sector, which would hold down global energy prices a bit and bite into Russian revenues.

But then consider the conspiracy theories: whether or not some hold water, their very existence is a threat to Trump. It would be wise to undermine their credibility by at least appearing to push back against Putin. But rather than hash this all out in paragraph form, I made a table of different possibilities, treating Trump’s mindset as a black box. These possibilities are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. I do not consider these possibilities equally likely.

Trump is not a Russian puppet. He’s a red-blooded, pure-hearted American patriot. Trump is under Russian influence, because he finds common cause with Putin the autocrat and/or Putin can help him with information warfare. Trump is under Russian influence because they have dirt on him and/or he relies on business connections in Russia.
Trump has a firm grasp of geopolitics. He’s a brilliant dealmaker with real convictions who can think circles around opponents. Trump perceives that the narrative could slip away from him, and even though he genuinely believes rapprochement with Russia is in the best long-term interest of the U.S. vis-a-vis terrorism and China, he can’t pursue it if he gets impeached. He adopts tougher rhetoric against Russia, knowing it won’t change the situation on the ground, to undermine the Russian-connection narrative. It was all a negotiating tactic! Having gained Trump the election, Putin has outlived his usefulness, and Trump is now pursuing his real plan to stare down Russia and cement American hegemony in Eastern Europe. Take the red pill and I’ll show you how deep the rabbit hole goes! The Kremlin may have told him to make a demand they would never actually grant, as a cost-free gesture to try to shift the narrative, with a tacit threat to spill the beans. Trump sees an opportunity to brace for the storm by trying to undermine the Russian-connection narrative.
Trump does not know what’s going on, because he’s an ignorant, impulsive reality show narcissist. Trump wants to sound tough and get a shot in at Obama, whether or not it’s consistent with anything he’s said before. Maybe he believes that good ol’-fashioned American gumption and derring-do will always win the day. The Kremlin told him to make a demand they would never actually grant, as a cost-free gesture to try to shift the narrative, but he doesn’t need to know that. The Kremlin told him to make a demand they would never actually grant, as a cost-free gesture to try to shift the narrative, but he doesn’t need to know that, with a tacit threat to spill the beans.

Believe what you will.

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