Presidential Campaign

Trump’s views on Ukraine are straight from the Kremlin

Republican nominee Donald Trump’s comments on Ukraine and Russia in his recent ABC interview have raised concerns about his understanding of the conflict in Ukraine and the policies a potential Trump administration would pursue in relation to Russia, Ukraine and our allies in central and eastern Europe. What is evident from this interview is that Trump’s views have been swayed by the Kremlin’s myths and propaganda.

The first Kremlin myth is that Russia or the leadership of President Vladimir Putin have not been involved in the conflict in Ukraine. Trump stated “[Putin]’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. … OK, well, he’s there in a certain way.”

As I detailed in my new book “Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire,” the Kremlin and the propaganda machine run by Russian state-owned media have indeed long tried to deny and obscure Russian military involvement in their annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.

In reality, in February 2014, Russian special forces acting without insignia, along with Russian troops stationed with the Black Sea Fleet on the peninsula, conducted the takeover of Crimea. The peninsula was swiftly incorporated into the Russian Federation in March.

The following month, in April 2014 a small Russian military detachment commanded by Col. Igor Girkin (who had earlier taken part in capturing Crimea) crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border and captured the city of Sloviansk in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donetsk. Subsequently, pro-Russian militias, Russian troops without insignia and Russian special forces continued to advance on other towns and cities in eastern Ukraine, where conflict persists until present day. In December 2015, Putin admitted that military intelligence officers were operating in eastern Ukraine, though he continued to deny regular troop involvement despite the sizable Russian casualties from the conflict.

The second Kremlin myth is that the Crimean people wanted to be part of Russia and willingly joined the Russian Federation. Trump echoed this myth in the ABC interview: “[Y]ou know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

Russia has worked hard to propagate this myth, which relies on two main arguments. First,  the Kremlin points to the March 2014 “referendum” for Crimea and the city of Sevastopol to join Russia with the reported, but the highly unlikely, outcome of 96.7 percent voting in favor. However, illegal “referendum” was conducted in Crimea by Russian authorities and separatists under the watchful eye of 20,000 Russian troops after the peninsula was taken over by Russian military. Accordingly, the international community considers the so-called Crimean referendum a farce. Just two days after the “referendum,” the Russian Federation signed the treaty of accession for Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, and thus enacted what the world considers an unlawful annexation of Ukrainian territories.

The second argument favored by the Kremlin is that Crimea is essentially Russian and that its inhabitants thus favor joining Russia. Crimea was part of Russia from its annexation in 1783 until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it, within the Soviet Union, to Ukraine. However, the peninsula’s native population of Crimean Tatars has long suffered persecutions and deportations under Moscow’s rule (under the Russian tsars and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin), and holds little affinity for Russian annexation. Since Moscow’s most recent takeover, they continue to face persecution and intimidation.

Moreover, the Kremlin’s depiction of the Crimean population as Russian is highly misleading. The most recent transparent Crimean population census, that of 2001, showed that 58.5 percent called themselves Russians, 24.4 identified as Ukrainians and 12.1 percent as Crimean Tatars. While 77 percent of the population was Russian-speaking, that was not a sign of ethnicity or political leanings, but rather an outcome of hundreds of years of Russian and Soviet Russification policies.

While the inaccuracies in Trump’s statements may seem inconsequential for many outside of policymakers and scholars working on Russia and Ukraine, myths and facts matter in rhetoric of political candidates because they can be the basis of future policies of the administration. If Moscow’s myths are accepted and thus, if Russia’s role in the war in eastern Ukraine or in Crimea’s annexation is minimized, then this could raise a reassessment of current U.S. and international sanctions against Russia.

It could also lead to a reassessment of the U.S. policy not to recognize Crimea’s annexation, which would set a dangerous precedent. It would signal to Russia that the U.S. and the international community will tolerate Moscow’s efforts to redraw other borders and annex other territories in central and eastern Europe and former Soviet republics.

Dr. Grigas is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author of “Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire” (Yale University Press, 2016). Follow her on Twitter @AgniaGrigas.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Tags annexation conflict Crimea Donald Trump Kremlin Referendum Russia Ukraine War

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