Trump Remains Evasive on Crimea Ahead of Summit With Putin

Legal experts say the U.S. president has authority to recognize Crimea as part of Russia, but sanctions would remain.

A pro-Ukrainian protester places balloons in the colors of the flag over the fencing where members of the Ukrainian military have been locked into their base by the Russians on Mar. 14, 2014 in Bakhchysarai, Ukraine. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
A pro-Ukrainian protester places balloons in the colors of the flag over the fencing where members of the Ukrainian military have been locked into their base by the Russians on Mar. 14, 2014 in Bakhchysarai, Ukraine. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images) (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Ahead of his first formal summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. President Donald Trump is refusing to clarify his views on Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea, sparking concerns among some analysts and former U.S. officials that the Russian leader might somehow extract concessions from Trump on the issue.

Asked about Crimea at a joint press conference with the British Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday, Trump offered a version of the noncommittal response he’s given in the past.

“We’re going to see what happens,” he said.

Though an explicit endorsement of Putin’s expansionism would be surprising, Trump’s evasiveness on the issue coupled with his record of extraordinary statements and actions at international summits has left many on edge.

Just last month, he told leaders at the G-7 summit that Crimea is, in fact, Russian, because everyone there speaks Russian.

Daniel Fried, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, said he was worried that Putin would outmaneuver Trump on the matter.

“He can be charming, he’s on top of his brief, he’s a master of detail — good at talking to people,” said Fried, who until his retirement last year was America’s longest-serving diplomat.

But what would a U.S. concession mean for Russia?

Legal experts say Trump, as president, does have the authority to recognize Crimea as part of Russia.

That authority was established in a 2015 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Zivotofsky v. Kerry. The petitioner, Naomi Zivotofsky, sought to have “Jerusalem, Israel” listed as her son’s place of birth in his U.S. passport. But successive U.S. presidents had refused to recognize Jerusalem as part of Israel (until Trump did so earlier this year), and so the petition was denied.

“Before the Supreme Court Zivotofsky decision, this was a very difficult question, an unclear issue that had never precisely been resolved in all of our constitutional history,” said Jean Galbraith, a professor of U.S. foreign relations law and public international law at the University of Pennsylvania.

Now, she said, “no lower court could possibly rule against President Trump’s decision in light of Zivotofsky.”

But U.S. recognition of Crimea would not necessarily mean an end to the sanctions the United States imposed on Russia over the annexation.

The Constitution gives Congress, not the president, the power to regulate foreign commerce, including commercial sanctions. And lawmakers from both parties have made clear they want to continue penalizing Russia.

A sanctions bill passed last year, known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, gave Congress further powers to review and potentially block any efforts by the White House to dilute commerce restrictions on Russia.

Still, even without the lifting of sanctions, U.S. recognition of Crimea as Russian would be a huge prize for Putin, scholars said.

It would confer legitimacy on an act of aggression that most of the world views as unlawful and it would help Russia tighten its grip on Crimea.  

“It would go a long way to normalizing this completely illegal annexation of territory,” Galbraith said. “Until other nations, other countries sign off on what you’re doing, you’re still an occupier — it’s not your territory.”

The Helsinki summit between Trump and Putin on Monday is scheduled to last for four hours, and CNN reported that Trump plans to meet Putin alone before allowing aides to join.

“The big thing is expect the unexpected,” said Anders Aslund, an economist who has done work on Russian issues and is now a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Fried, the former assistant secretary of state, said any concession on Crimea would be viewed as a “dirty deal” — a sop to a dictator and a betrayal of an ally, Ukraine.

“It would indicate American strategic unreliability and weaken America as the leader of the free world,” he said.

Amy Mackinnon is a reporter at Foreign Policy@ak_mack

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