The Desire to Please Dictators: Why Trump’s Crimea Gaffe Matters

Russia’s illegal occupation was not a political issue in the US—until Donald Trump made it one

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump.

It’s August and we’re officially in this year’s presidential contest in a serious way. Now that both parties have anointed nominees at their conventions, campaigning begins in earnest with the election in early November only three months and much hard electoral slogging away.

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Hillary Clinton’s coronation in Philadelphia at the Democratic convention got off to a rocky start last week with revelations of messy squabbling and shady dealings thanks to 20,000 stolen Democratic National Committee internal emails that appeared on the website of Wikileaks, the “privacy” organization that, as I explained in detail, now functions as an arm of the Kremlin.

Donald Trump has done himself and the Republican party no favors with his reaction to the Wikileaks operation, however. Initially dismissing allegations of Russian involvement as a “joke,” Trump then asked Moscow to locate the more than 30,000 emails that Clinton and her staff deleted in EmailGate. While it’s highly likely that the Kremlin indeed does have Hillary’s missing emails, encouraging a hostile intelligence service to pillage the communications of fellow Americans represents a genuinely novel development in our politics.

To make matters worse, Trump then attacked the parents of a Muslim soldier who was killed in Iraq while serving as an officer in the U.S. Army. Make no mistake—the Khan family appeared at the Democratic convention in a political role and they badmouthed Trump there. That said, the optics of going after the grieving parents in public are so bad as to defy belief that anybody would do it—repeatedly. Attacking Gold Star parents, too, is a novel development in our politics.

It’s apparent that the Democrats laid a cunning trap for Trump with the Khans, knowing how the media was likely to cover the story, and the Republican nominee walked straight right into it, mouth blazing. It’s no wonder that Trump’s polls numbers have been dropping in recent days while Hillary’s are rising.

Amid all these unforced errors in a single, disastrous week for the GOP, Trump made another statement that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, between the Republican nominee’s other highly publicized gaffes.

This was a comment he made about Crimea, the Ukrainian region on the Black Sea that was annexed by Russian forces in early 2014, setting off what I termed at the time Cold War 2.0. On Sunday’s This Week program on ABC, Trump appeared to accept Moscow’s occupation of Crimea, indicating that, as president, he would “look at” recognizing Russian rule there, adding memorably, “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

Making matters worse, Trump then denied Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine, stating twice of President Vladimir Putin, “He’s not going into Ukraine.” This overlooks the well-known fact that since 2014 occupied Crimea has become a major Russian military venue, with the Kremlin publicly boasting of a hundred new units stationed on the peninsula. Moscow’s forces in Crimea include the Black Sea Fleet (with a cruiser, a destroyer, four frigates, five submarines plus numerous smaller vessels), while the air force recently showcased its power in a memorable demonstration of strength over Crimea. And let’s not forget the two whole Russian army corps—nine brigades plus five regiments—that occupy a substantial chunk of eastern Ukraine and are involved in daily combat operations against Ukrainian forces.

Trump has signaled to Moscow and everyone else how little Article 5 would mean in his administration.

Bizarrely, when challenged by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Trump semi-backtracked and went on to blame President Obama: “OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet. You have Obama there.” As someone who has been sharply critical of this White House’s dithering policy in Ukraine, let me state clearly that the only people who blame Obama for Putin’s annexation of Crimea are Kremlin propagandists, usually of the paid variety.

There are two options to explain so many errors by Trump in a few sentences. Either he is clueless about Crimea and Ukraine, being totally unfamiliar with the basic issues, and decided to pontificate on the subject regardless while on national television. Or he is consciously parroting Kremlin propaganda. There is no third choice here.

That Trump is seriously deficient in matters of foreign affairs and national security is no secret, since he seems to lack basic awareness of any military issues, therefore that he simply talked on live TV without knowing anything cannot be ruled out.

However, the Trump campaign has shown unusual interest in all matters Russian, even though the nominee can’t quite explain just what his relationship with Putin actually is, or if one exists at all—this, too, came up in the Stephanopoulos interview. Several top campaign staffers possess troubling ties to the Kremlin, as I’ve previously elaborated, while Trump’s people changed the GOP’s party platform at the recent convention in Cleveland—and not to Ukraine’s benefit.

There, the platform’s proposed language on Ukraine was weakened from providing that country “lethal defensive weapons” to merely “appropriate assistance.” Although Trump and his campaign have denied they were behind the verbiage change, this has been proven to be a lie.

Here one suspects the hand of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, who worked for several years as a top adviser to Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s thuggish and thievish president who was thrown form office in early 2014 and promptly fled to Russia. This was no surprise, since Yanukovych was very much Moscow’s man and he enjoyed a close relationship with the Kremlin and its security services, which were allowed free reign in Ukraine as long as Yanukoyvch was boss.

Once it became apparent that Trump’s comments on Crimea were a debacle, his campaign changed its story. The candidate himself ham-handedly tried to walk back his words, while his campaign co-chair bizarrely stated that Trump “was thinking about something else” when he said that Putin wasn’t going to go into Ukraine.

Trump then retorted that trying to pry Crimea away from Russia now would start “World War III”—a statement that is true but utterly misses the point. If Obama decided not to fight Russia over Crimea—a wise choice since Joint Chiefs of Staff would have balked anyway—the next president, whoever it may be, will never seek to turn back the clock, given the thousands of nuclear weapons in Russia’s possession. This is straw-manning by Trump that merits derision.

However, publicly acquiescing in Russia’s violent theft of Crimea, while lying about the Kremlin’s misconduct in Ukraine, represents a political and moral turning point for the Trump campaign. Simply put, only Russia plus its friends and vassals recognize Moscow’s occupation of Crimea. The rest of the world has been admirably clear that the theft of Crimea was an illegal act that ought not be recognized.

The Trump campaign doesn’t seem too concerned about facts these days.

The United Nations has spoken, with a March 2014 General Assembly resolution recognizing Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity: 100 members supported it while only 11 voted against. The United States along with the European Union have spoken with one voice on the Crimea issue, enforcing economic sanctions on Russia that have caused real pain for Putin. Recognizing Russia’s illegal occupation was not a political, much less a partisan, issue in our country, beyond its odd fringes—until Donald Trump made it one.

It’s easy to dismiss far-off Crimea as a matter of little importance to Americans in an election year, especially since de facto the peninsula really is Russia’s now, and Ukraine lacks the power to change the post-2014 status quo. Yet Crimea matters for several reasons, ranging from the pragmatic to the philosophical.

In the first place, if Russia can occupy parts of neighboring countries that include ethnic Russians anytime Moscow feels like it, we can expect Putin to do this again. Probably soon. It’s not like the West’s acquiescence in allowing Germany to use similar logic to occupy Austria and then the Sudetenland in the late 1930s exactly sated Adolf Hitler.

If the countries of the former Soviet Union that include Russian minorities—that’s most of them—are “really” Moscow’s to be carved up on ethnic lines, the Kremlin’s knives are ready. And some of the countries that will be carved up belong to NATO, and they will be sure to invoke Article 5, the Alliance’s collective defense provision, when the Russians arrive.

Not that Trump seems to think NATO’s worth much anyway. Having called the Atlantic Alliance “very obsolete” while stating that, as president, he would only come to the aid of NATO members who were in his good graces, Trump has signaled to Moscow and everyone else how little Article 5 would mean in his administration.

Our allies have noticed. In Estonia, where fears of Russia are acute—as I recently explained—and their cyber-savvy president shames Trump’s online trolls, senior officials are openly worried about a possible Trump presidency. Top security folks in all the Baltic states now plainly call the Republican nominee “the Kremlin’s man” and dread his possible moving into the White House in January.

It hardly helps that Newt Gingrich, the GOP stalwart who’s close to the Trump campaign, recently castigated NATO members who aren’t pulling their military weight, blowing off Estonia as being “in the suburbs of St. Petersburg.” This was taken by Estonians as an unambiguous signal that Article 5 won’t apply to them in a Trump presidency.

This was a perverse misstatement by Gingrich, given that little Estonia is one of the very few NATO members that actually spends the notionally required two percent of GDP on defense. Anybody even cursorily informed about NATO knows that Estonia punches well above its weight in the Atlantic Alliance.

Not to mention that Estonia is in St. Petersburg’s suburbs only in Gingrich’s mind. The actual distance from the border to Russia’s second-biggest city is a hundred miles—the same distance that Philadelphia is from Manhattan—but the Trump campaign doesn’t seem too concerned about facts these days. Using Gingrich’s logic, south Texas is rightfully Mexico’s since Monterrey is only hundred miles from the Rio Grande.

Let’s be clear that the Crimea issue has impacts far beyond the Baltics. Our rivals worldwide watched Putin’s smash-and-grab of Crimea with the Little Green Men of GRU, his military intelligence service, with intense interest. This playbook can now be copied by other countries, particularly if President Trump won’t do anything about it.

Would Trump, as commander-in-chief, simply let China occupy Taiwan, as the People’s Liberation Army has dreamed of for decades? What about all those tiny little islands in the South China Sea that Beijing nakedly covets? These are questions that the Republican nominee now needs to be asked, plainly and directly.

Come to think of it, Iran has designs beyond its borders too. As do several other countries that are not exactly friends of ours. After the catastrophe of 1914-45, when two world wars killed some 75 million people between combat and genocide, the world, led by the United States, established new international norms that sought to minimize the territorial conflicts that caused the horrors of the twentieth century’s blood-drenched first half.

That effort was imperfect and its not-always-efficient diplomatic mechanisms can sometimes seem downright silly. But the post-1945 world order, led by America, has been far more successful than anything before it. Wars really are rarer now, while major conflict seems all but unthinkable, especially among nuclear-armed powers.

The ancients had a take on foreign relations that was memorably expressed as “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” This law of the jungle led to countless wars right until the mid-20th century, when the appalling cost of letting aggressors simply do as they wished became obvious to all but the blind.

Donald Trump’s foreign policy vision, with its desire to please dictators until they hopefully behave, seems to be more comfortable with the norms of the ancients than with those of the current century. This is why Crimea matters. Trump’s concept of international relations will only encourage more aggression against the weak while quite possibly unleashing major war and geopolitical hell with it.

Disclosure: Donald Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, the publisher of Observer Media.

John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.

The Desire to Please Dictators: Why Trump’s Crimea Gaffe Matters