The United States Shouldn’t Roll Over for Russia in Ukraine
Writing recently in The National Interest, Jeffrey Burt, James Hitch, Peter Pettibone, and Thomas Shillinglaw argue that the first step in a three-step strategy for Donald Trump’s presidential administration in regard to the simmering conflict in Ukraine is for the United States and Russia to “accommodate themselves to ‘agreeing to disagree’ on the status of Crimea for the indefinite future.” They note that “this was essentially the way in which the three Baltic countries were viewed diplomatically from 1940 through the demise of the USSR. It is hardly an elegant or an even satisfactory solution, but, at least, it is a doable one, justified by the on-the-ground reality.”
To leverage the analogy of the post-World War II occupation of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania by the Soviet Union in such a cavalier manner is not only historically inaccurate, but highly inappropriate. It perpetuates a discredited representation of U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe both during and after the Second World War. In addition, it neglects the tremendous human suffering levied by the Soviet Union against native Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians. Finally, the fact that the authors do not rest their argument on the potential benefits for the United States of a U.S.-Russian rapprochement further weakens the notion that their preferred course of action is the appropriate one.
Burt, Hitch, Pettibone, and Shillinglaw’s historical narrative is flawed in three key ways. First, it doesn’t account for the staunch rhetorical opposition by the U.S. government to the initial occupation of the Baltic States in 1940. The Welles Declaration, issued by then acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles on July 23, 1940, noted that given “the devious processes whereunder the political independence and territorial integrity of the three small Baltic Republics – Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania – were to be deliberately annihilated by one of their more powerful neighbors,” the policy of the United States was quite clear: “The people of the United States are opposed to predatory activities no matter whether they are carried on by the use of force or by the threat of force. They are likewise opposed to any form of intervention on the part of one state, however powerful, in the domestic concerns of any other sovereign state, however weak.”
Second, these sentiments were backed up with concrete policy actions. More than just a statement of principles, the U.S. government bolstered the Welles Declaration by continuing to recognize the foreign ministers of the Baltic States as the rightful international representatives of the conquered governments. The U.S. government had even earlier moved to protect the financial assets of Baltic Citizens in the United States from Soviet seizure through Executive Order 8484.
Third, portraying U.S. policy toward the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States as one of enlightened ignorance ignores the covert military actions that the United States undertook to oppose said occupation. The United States, in coordination with British intelligence services, launched a number of intelligence-gathering and espionage operations across Eastern Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s to contest Soviet domination, including operations in the Baltic States. Although of little ultimate military value, these covert actions indicated the interest the United States had in not easily acquiescing to Soviet demands.
More disturbing than Burt, Hitch, Pettibone, and Shillinglaw’s misrepresentation of the historical record, however, is their casual dismissal of the death and destruction wrought by Soviet soldiers and officials over the course of their fifty-year occupation of the Baltic States. In Estonia alone, 8,000 individuals were arrested between 1940 and 1941, of whom almost 2,000 were executed. This was in addition to 11,000 deportations. According to the White Book produced by the Estonian State Commission on Examination of the Policies of Repression, the immediate post-war period saw a further 53,000 arrests. Taken together these figures account for about 7% of the pre-war population The horror of the torture perpetrated by the KGB and other Soviet state apparatuses is still living memory in many Baltic cities. Not only is the authors’ historical analogy therefore inaccurate, but even when the United States was unwilling to entirely cede to Soviet demands the results were horrendous. Importantly, I am not suggesting that a similar level of death and destruction would follow if the United States were to accede to Russian demands over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, for all of his faults, is no Josef Stalin; contemporary Russia, despite Putin’s efforts, is not the cold-war Soviet Union. Still, the dark side of U.S. relative neglect is important to remember.
Finally, although Burt, Hitch, Pettibone, and Shillinglaw are careful to note up front that “the annexation of Crimea, as well as Russia’s continuing military initiatives in the eastern Ukrainian Donbas region, represent egregious violations of international law,” it is interesting that they don’t point to the tangible benefits of a U.S.-Russian rapprochement for the United States as evidence for their argument. While trumpeting that “the new Trump Administration can legitimately disavow prior U.S. policies which have so antagonized Putin,” such as the eastward expansion of NATO, they ignore the fact that, regardless of the accuracy of perceptions regarding U.S. or NATO intentions, Russia alone chose to act by fomenting conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
It is easy enough to construct a list of the potential benefits for Russia of a rapprochement: they could stand to gain economically through the removal of sanctions and increased trade, Vladimir Putin would garner domestic legitimacy for standing up for Russian interests, and on the international stage Russia would demonstrate that it retains some modicum of its Cold War clout. The hypothetical benefits for the United States are much harder to ascertain. An end to Russian sponsored hacking of U.S. businesses and political organizations? Decreased costs to resolving the ongoing violence in Syria? These are primarily problems that Russia has either created or fostered. It therefore may not be that Burt, Hitch, Pettibone, and Shillinglaw ignored the benefits for the United States of resetting relations with Russia, but that these benefits don’t exist at all.
This fact, more than anything, belies the arguments of rapprochement enthusiasts. More troubling, it indicates the depths of their hypocrisy. Having latched onto a candidate who declared ad nauseam his goal of “making America great again,” it is incredibly disingenuous to turn around and argue for policies that are not in the interest of the United States.
*The Center for the National Interest did not make Burt, Hitch, Pettibone, or Shillinglaw available for comment upon request and refused comment as to whether they agree that the analogy in question is an appropriate one.