In the annals of fixed elections, Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on Anschluss with Russia was a relatively restrained result. Vladimir Putin, the guiding intelligence behind this sham vote, was apparently content with a mere 96.7 percent vote in favor of unification with Russia. Give him props for not going for the full Castro–a 99 percent endorsement.
To say that the vote stealing was restrained is not, of course, the same thing as saying it was a fair or legal vote. Country A can’t simply invade a province of Country B and, under the guns of its army, call a snap election on unification with Country A. If that were permitted to occur, any semblance of the rule of law would be replaced with the law of the jungle. We would be back to the 1930s when predators ruled the international system.
Of course it’s always possible that Putin will refuse to annex Crimea notwithstanding the pro-unification vote. Possible, but not likely. All the signs point to Russian troops digging in for the long term–witness the paratroopers who just seized a gas plant that supplies Crimea but which is located in Ukraine proper. This could well be the first step in more annexations designed to safeguard electrical and water supplies to Crimea and perhaps even to create a land bridge back to Russia proper.
Putin’s power grab is tremendously popular among Russians who think that Crimea (given to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev) and Ukraine as a whole (which only became independent in 1991) are properly part of the Russian empire. There is no doubt that there is a close historical association between Ukraine and Russia, but Ukraine is now recognized by the entire world as an independent country, and the majority of its people have no desire to be dominated much less ruled directly by the Kremlin. Putin’s power grab is, in truth, no more legitimate than Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, which he claimed was properly Iraq’s 19th province.
Borders are disputed all over the world, and if Putin is again allowed to change borders by force this will set an incredibly dangerous precedent that can only embolden China, which abstained on a UN Security Council resolution (vetoed by Putin) condemning the Russian invasion. This is significant because of China’s abhorrence of the principle of self-determination for ethnic minorities such as the Russians in Crimea–a precedent that could apply equally well to Tibet or Xinjiang. Apparently China’s quasi-alliance with Russia, its hostility toward the West, and perhaps its desire to impose at gunpoint its own solution on disputed territories such as the Senkaku Islands weighed in the balance to prevent the Communist leaders in Beijing from breaking decisively with the former KGB agent in the Kremlin.
The bottom line is that, as I have been arguing, Putin cannot be allowed to get away with his criminal behavior with impunity. The higher the price he pays, the better the chances that he will think twice about such aggression in the future–and so will other dictators around the world. Now it’s up to the U.S. and EU to see how much courage they have to ramp up sanctions on Russia and suffer the inevitable Russian retaliation.
We don’t necessarily need a Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt leading the West today. We don’t even need a Ronald Reagan. But we could at least use a George H.W. Bush–the president who famously said, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”