Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea is poised to resurface as President Donald Trump prepares for his first summit with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Virtually the entire global community, including President Barack Obama’s administration, refused to recognize the annexation, which was the first such takeover in Europe since the end of the Cold War. But given Trump’s friendliness to Putin, some foreign policy specialists are wondering whether the president might soon change the U.S. position on the annexation of territory that belonged to Ukraine.
During the July 8 edition of NBC’s Meet the Press, Danielle Pletka, the senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, equated the Russia-friendly comments of Trump with the stance of the 2016 Democratic presidential runner-up, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
"The Crimea thing highlights something much more important, which is this awful meeting of sort of the Bernie bros and the Trump people on this question of eating away at other country's sovereignty," Pletka said. "You know, ‘Oh no, that's fine, what do we care? Crimea, they've got a lot of Russians anyway.’ Bernie Sanders took that position, President Trump takes that position. I don't understand why it is that the center-right and the center-left are not more forceful on this issue."
There’s a problem with this assertion: Sanders has consistently opposed the Russian annexation of Crimea. Here are some of his comments (with bold emphasis by us):
• On March 17, 2014, Sanders wrote in an official statement, "The entire world has got to stand up to Putin. We've got to deal with sanctions."
• On Feb. 4, 2016, during an MSNBC Democratic primary debate, Sanders said, "I worry about Putin and his military adventurism in the Crimea and the Ukraine." (Sanders did go on to say that he ranked the "isolated" nation of North Korea as the most serious national security threat to the United States, above Russia, without minimizing Russia’s threats.)
• Feb. 11, 2016, during a PBS Democratic primary debate, Sanders said, "Right now, we have got to do our best in developing positive relations with Russia. But let's be clear: Russia's aggressive actions in the Crimea and in Ukraine have brought about a situation where President Obama and NATO — correctly, I believe — are saying, you know what, we're going to have to beef up our troop level in that part of the world to tell Putin that his aggressiveness is not going to go unmatched, that he is not going to get away with aggressive action. I happen to believe that Putin is doing what he is doing because his economy is increasingly in shambles and he's trying to rally his people in support of him. But bottom line is: The president is right. We have to put more money. We have to work with NATO to protect Eastern Europe against any kind of Russian aggression."
When we contacted Sanders’ office, they said the senator stands by the positions in these quotes.
The closest potential evidence suggesting that Sanders was copacetic with the annexation of Crimea was his vote against legislation that would tighten sanctions on Russia. The bill, called the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, passed with only three nay votes in the House and two in the Senate, including Sanders, before it was signed by Trump in August 2017.
However, Sanders made clear that his objection to the bill had to do with its policies toward Iran, not the sanctions on Russia.
In June 15, 2017, statement, Sanders said, "I am strongly supportive of the sanctions on Russia included in this bill. It is unacceptable for Russia to interfere in our elections here in the United States, or anywhere around the world. There must be consequences for such actions." However, Sanders continued that on Iran, "these new sanctions could endanger the very important nuclear agreement that was signed between the United States, its partners and Iran in 2015." (Trump subsequently dropped United States support for the Iran nuclear agreement.)
Russia specialists we contacted agreed that Sanders has been consistent in opposing the annexation of Crimea.
"I don’t think there is evidence that Sanders or his supporters were ever in support of Russian annexation of Crimea," said Yoshiko Herrera, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political scientist. "Both center-left and center-right supported sanctions and punishment of Russia over Crimea annexation."
Dan Nexon, an associate professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, agreed.
"The Sanders campaign considered the annexation of Crimea illegal and illegitimate," said Dan Nexon, an associate professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University. "He did have a more calibrated position that sought to balance, on the one hand, deterrence and pressure with, on the other hand, avoiding unnecessary escalation. But it was never that he said, ‘That’s fine. What do we care?’"
Pletka told PunditFact that she may have conflated some past research she had done on the issue, inaccurately attributing the views of some left-wing Democrats to Sanders, who did not share them.
Pletka said Sanders was indifferent to Russia's annexation of Crimea because he felt "they have a lot of Russians anyway."
We found no evidence to support that assertion. To the contrary, we found that Sanders has consistently criticized the annexation since it occurred and supported measures to punish Russia. We rate the statement False.