Putin’s Crimean prize

To the surprise of few, Crimea has held a referendum on its future status. To the surprise of fewer still, the vote produced an overwhelming endorsement for joining Russia. To the surprise of none, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Duma, or Parliament, welcomed Crimea, including the naval port city of Sevastopol, back to the fold with open arms.

Crimea became part of Russia in the latter half of the 18th century. Although Nikita Khrushchev gave the region to Ukraine in 1954, it was part of the Soviet Union until its demise in 1991.

Despite Russia’s national interests in Ukraine, what Putin and Russia did should be condemned, because it dismembered a state and redrew international borders. This is the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union that Russia has incorporated part of a foreign country’s territories into its fold.

The dismemberment of Ukraine was preceded by a surreptitious invasion and by acts of agent provocateurs that feed the fictional narrative of a fascist resurgence in Ukraine.

Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that declared the referendum invalid, and Putin overturned his earlier declaration that Russia has no intention of incorporating Crimea. Thus it was inevitable that the United States and European nations would deepen their distrust of Putin and Russia.

Putin should stop the incorporation of Crimea before relations between Russia and the Western powers return to a situation similar to that of the Cold War.

The rest of the world needs to present a united front to effectively deal with Russia’s act of aggression, which is not only against Ukraine but against the prevailing international order. Failure to take meaningful and painful action against Putin and Russia could encourage him to intervene in other former republics of the Soviet Union, to separate regions dominated by Russian speaking people and incorporate them into Russia.

After mysterious militias — unmarked but acknowledged to be Russian by all save Putin — occupied the Crimea earlier this month, Russian sympathizers within that region demanded a vote on their future. Against the wishes of the government in Kiev, a referendum was quickly carried out with two choices: reuniting with Russia or restoring the 1992 Constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine. The restoration of the 1992 Constitution would have meant enhanced autonomy for Crimea.

In the vote last weekend, 83 percent of Crimeans turned out to vote, and 97 percent of them agreed to reunite with Russia.

In fact, the ballot was unconstitutional. Article 73 of the Ukrainian constitutions says any alteration of Ukrainian territory “shall be resolved exclusively by an all-Ukrainian resolution.” Since only Crimeans — and disaffected Crimeans at that — cast ballots, the vote was illegal. Most dissenters stayed away from the polls.

That didn’t matter to Russia. Two days later, calling Crimea “an integral part of Russia,” Putin signed a treaty to reunite the two. As in the past, he dismissed the government in Kiev as illegitimate, describing it as ruled by “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites. “Failing to act as Moscow did and to reunite with Crimea, said Putin, “would have been treason.”

Speaking to the Russian Duma, Putin said he does not want to divide Ukraine. Yet, even if Russia does not send its military across the border, Putin retains the threat of future action, if only “reluctantly,” and will be able to keep Ukraine, and the rest of central Europe, uncertain and on the defensive.

Still, pushing the process of incorporating Crimea could be a dangerous gamble for Putin. There is a report that it will cost Russia $3 billion annually, which will negatively affect the Russian economy. Crimea accounted for 6 percent of Ukraine’s population, and most residents there used to vote for pro-Russian parties. Separating Crimea from Ukraine does remove any likelihood of pro-Russia forces winning future elections in Ukraine.

The West has responded with diplomatic and economic measures. If subsequent measures are to be credible and meaningful, they cannot help inflicting pain not only on the Russian leaders and their Crimean sycophants but also on Europe. Europe may suffer from the cancellation of business deals, such as the French contract to build Russian warships, and the freezing of assets of Russian oligarchs in London.

Since Putin is betting that his adversaries will not have the stomach for such pain, Europe must go beyond symbolism by denying Putin the international legitimacy he craves. It must stay away from the Group of Eight summit he was to host this summer as well as impose costs on Putin’s confidants and those who would do business with them.

Other Western businesses must not try to benefit from sacrifices made by their colleagues: U.S. financial institutions, or other providers, should not service clients whom the British give up. Germany, Russia’s most important European partner, should be leading the continent’s response. The U.S. can help by increasing energy exports, thus loosening the grip of Russia’s most powerful tool as it tries to influence European decision making.

It is unlikely that Russia will give up the option of keeping the southeastern part of Ukraine within its sphere of influence. It is even possible that Russian will send its troops into other Ukrainian territories. International observers should be sent from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to prevent a dangerous contingency from developing.

Russia may have legitimate national interests in Ukraine, but that is no excuse for the dismemberment of a neighbor and the disregard of international norms. The international community, including Japan, should exert all their strength to help Ukrainians overcome their differences and to prevent further dismemberment.