Donald Trump’s call on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails Wednesday resulted in widespread criticism. But his comments on Crimea, coupled with ones he made last week on NATO, are likely to have greater significance if he is elected president in November.
The question came from Mareike Aden, a German reporter, who asked him whether a President Trump would recognize Crimea as Russian and lift sanctions on Moscow imposed after its 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian territory. The candidate’s reply: “Yes. We would be looking at that.”
That response is likely to spread much cheer through Russia—already buoyant about the prospect of a Trump victory in November. But it could spread at least an equal amount of dread in the former Soviet republics. In a matter of two weeks, the man who could become the next American president has not only questioned the utility of NATO, thereby repudiating the post-World War II security consensus, he also has seemingly removed whatever fig leaf of protection from Russia the U.S. offered the post-Soviet republics and Moscow’s former allies in the Eastern bloc.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave Crimea, a region that had been part of Russia for centuries, to Ukraine in 1954—though, to be fair, Khrushchev probably didn’t foresee that the Soviet Union would be the stuff of history books less than four decades later. Russia maintained close links to Crimea even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It helped that of all the Soviet republics, save Belarus, Ukraine maintained the most pro-Moscow positions until 2014. More than half of Crimea’s 2 million people were Russian; Russia maintained a naval base in the region; and Russians retired in Crimea in large numbers. But when Ukraine’s pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted, the tensions over Crimea became apparent.