Russian army trucks drive on the road from Sevastopol to Simferopol in Ukraine's Crimea.Baz Ratner / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday the United States would never recognize Russia’s annexation in 2014 of Ukraine’s Crimea. “As we did in the Welles Declaration in 1940, the United States reaffirms as policy its refusal to recognize the Kremlin’s claim of sovereignty over territory seized by force in contravention of international law … [T]he United States rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored,” Pompeo said in a statement.

The remarks will almost certainly dispel any ambiguity over whether the Trump administration was planning to recognize Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, a Ukrainian territory with close cultural and historic relations with Russia. Pompeo rooted his remarks in the Welles Declaration, which refused to recognize the then-Soviet Union’s invasion of the Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The declaration, named for Sumner Welles, the U.S. diplomat who crafted it, remained a cornerstone of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union for the next five decades, and empowered Baltic citizens who wished for independence from the Kremlin.

The Soviet invasion of the Baltic states came after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the 1939 nonaggression accord between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Following that agreement, the Soviets gained influence in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, three countries that the Soviets feared Germany would use as a staging ground for an invasion of the USSR. At first, the Soviet Union only signed mutual-assistance pacts with the three countries, but a year after those accords were signed, Stalin annexed the Baltic states. (Hitler ultimately betrayed Stalin, who joined the Allied nations to defeat the Nazis.)

The U.S., however, did not recognize that Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who at the time was criticized as soft on the Soviets, was instrumental in drafting the policy, Loy Henderson, the celebrated American diplomat, recalled in an interview in 1973. Roosevelt “was indignant at the manner in which the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States and personally approved the condemnatory statement issued by Under Secretary Welles on the subject.”

Henderson said Welles asked him to issue a press statement condemning the Soviet action, but did not think the draft was strong enough. “In my presence, he called the president and read the draft to him. They agreed that it needed strengthening,” he recalled. “Mr. Welles then recast a number of sentences and added several others which apparently had been suggested by the President. … Mr. Welles, thereupon, sent the statement down to the press room for issuance without further consultation.”

Although the U.S. and its European allies criticized Russia’s actions and heavily sanctioned Moscow for the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its subsequent support of breakaway Ukrainian provinces, critics had called for a Welles-style declaration that would cover Crimea and reject Russia’s fait accompli.  

As Elisabeth Braw, a nonresident fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a U.K.-based think tank, wrote in 2015, although Crimea wasn’t an independent country when it was annexed by Russia, Welles Declaration offers an interesting answer to the current standoff.”

“What if the United States and other governments were to issue a similar declaration regarding Crimea, essentially treating it as still-Ukrainian territory while disregarding that an annexation even happened?” she wrote.

Indeed, the Welles Declaration says:

During these past few days the devious processes where under 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, have been rapidly drawing to their conclusion.

From the day when the peoples of those Republics first gained their independent and democratic form of government the people of the United States have watched their admirable progress in self-government with deep and sympathetic interest.

The policy of this Government is universally known. 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.

These principles constitute the very foundations upon which the existing relationship between the twenty-one sovereign republics of the New World rests.

The United States will continue to stand by these principles, because of the conviction of the American people that unless the doctrine in which these principles are inherent once again governs the relations between nations, the rule of reason, of justice and of law – in other words, the basis of modern civilization itself – cannot be preserved.

These 78-year-old words provided the foundation for Pompeo’s announcement today—words that remain as relevant today as they were then.

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