Actors in prosthetic make-up portraying Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in London, 13 march 2017. Paddy Power / Joe Pepler
President Trump has ushered in an era of uncertainty in the Western world. The United States is no longer viewed as a stable and predictable actor, but as a country run by a President whose words and deeds do not always align. Trump has made foreign engagement with the US a tricky guessing game while the country is growing increasingly isolationist and proving to be an unreliable and bad faith actor.
While concerning, Trump’s recent statement that he refuses to rule out accepting Russia’s unlawful claim on Ukraine’s Crimea tells us nothing about how the US will act. It is possible the statement may remain in the realm of rhetoric. However, it is possible the US will recognize annexed Crimea as Russian, as many speculate the recognition could be used as a bargaining chip in the upcoming Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki. Recognition may not even be formal, but tacit, expressed by lifting sanctions imposed on Russia for its war on Ukraine.
Should the US even tacitly recognize Russia’s illegal land grab, it will signal America’s final transformation from “leader of the free world” to “friend of rogue states”. It is already on a dangerous course of becoming a pariah state among western nations. Trump’s alienation of western democracies and apparent attempt to undermine the US from within, and dismantle the existing international security order is cause for great alarm.
Trump has made many disparaging (and false) comments about NATO members, questioned the value of the intergovernmental military alliance and its system of collective defense, and has even threatened US withdrawal. He has also threatened to withdraw from the World Trade Organization and to kill NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Act). He has launched an illegal trade war on Mexico, the European Union, and Canada. Trump has proposed many actions which would upend important western institutions and would serve only the interests of rogue states like Russia, including his recent suggestion to President Macron that France leave the European Union.
The image of the United States abroad is crumbling. Trump is making enemies out of friends and allies, and ingratiating himself with murderous dictators like Putin. Granting Russia the gift of recognizing the spoils of its gross violation of international law would signal to evil regimes with illegal and immoral ambitions that they need not feel restrained by law and morality. Nowhere would this be more acutely felt than in Ukraine, where Russia has been waging unlawful war for more than four years.
Ukraine has been gallantly defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity against a nuclear foe. But Kyiv has needed support in fighting back against a country with the world’s second largest military, and with no moral limits. Recognizing Crimea as Russian territory would be nothing less than the abandonment of Ukraine.
Moscow could easily interpret it as a green light to revive its “Novorossia” project in Ukraine and attempt to take more territory. The timing of recognizing the illegal land grab could be advantageous to Putin as his popularity has plummeted. At 48%, Putin’s rating is just slightly higher than the low of 45% before annexing Crimea. Violating Ukraine’s sovereignty resulted in Putin’s meteoric rise in popularity, up to 75%. Knowing that waging unlawful war on peaceful countries results in an eventual reward, it is not unreasonable to worry that Moscow may expand its military invasion in Ukraine, or attack other vulnerable neighbors, to boost sagging popularity.
The US would be directly responsible for the many dangerous consequences arising out of recognizing Moscow’s land grab. It already bears some degree of responsibility for Russia’s war on Ukraine. The 2009 Reset with Russia came on the heels of Moscow’s invasion of Georgia, allowing Russia to occupy parts of the country to today. It left Moscow confident it could invade Ukraine and face no major repercussions.
With growing human rights abuses at home and alignment with evil regimes abroad, the US is on a frightening trajectory. If Americans do not reign Trump in, the US could find itself a pole of the Axis of Evil, helping make the world a much more dangerous place.
Whether Trump’s comment was another throwaway statement or a signal of what is to come, the US must change its path before it moves so far off course it will take decades to repair.