Russian President Vladimir Putin formally annexed Ukraine’s southern province of Crimea this week, brushing aside threats of tough sanctions from the U.S. and Europe and plunging Russia and the West into their worst crisis since the end of the Cold War. In a 46-minute speech at the Kremlin, Putin declared that by accepting the result of a referendum in which almost 97 percent of Crimeans voted to join the Russian Federation, he was righting a historical injustice committed by the Soviet Union 60 years ago, when Crimea was passed from Russia to Ukraine. “Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia,” he said, claiming that he’d been forced to act after pro-Western demonstrators toppled Ukraine’s Moscow-sponsored government last month. Leaving Crimea’s mostly ethnic Russian population in the hands of “neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites,” he said, “would have been treason.” After pro-Russian civilians and masked gunmen stormed Ukrainian military bases in Crimea, killing at least one soldier, Ukraine’s government ordered its forces to leave the peninsula.
Putin insisted he had no further designs on Ukraine’s territory, but complained of “rampant violence by ultranationalist” groups in eastern Ukraine and suggested he might be forced to act if Russia’s neighbor attempts to join the European Union. The U.S. and the EU, meanwhile, refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and imposed travel bans and asset freezes on a small number of top Russian and Crimean officials, warning that more extensive sanctions were in the works.
What the editorials said
Russia is laughing at President Obama, said The Wall Street Journal. The president promised “consequences” if Russia annexed Crimea, but so far he has only sanctioned seven Russians and four Ukrainians, most of them low-ranking political figures. Putin’s deputy prime minister said the sanctions must have been written by “some kind of joker,” and Moscow’s stock exchange rose 3.7 percent after the pathetic penalties were announced. “Congratulations, Mr. President. You gave the Kremlin a sanctions relief rally.”
The West has to get tougher, said Bloomberg.com. Putin’s inner circle should be hit with sanctions, and he must be warned that any move into eastern Ukraine will lead to the targeting of major Russian banks and businesses. “The purpose, to be clear, isn’t to get Crimea back.” It’s too late for that. The aim “is to make Putin think twice before going any further.”
What the columnists said
Crimea is just the beginning for Putin, said Julia Ioffe in NewRepublic.com. The peninsula isn’t linked to Russia by land and relies on Ukraine for electricity, gas, and water—services that Kiev has threatened to cut off. Russian forces seized control of a gas plant nearby in Ukraine last week, and out of “sheer pragmatism and necessity” Putin must be considering grabbing more territory to safeguard supplies.
The autocrat certainly appears to be gearing up for war, said Walter Russell Mead in The-American-Interest.com. Russian “rent-a-mobs” are being bused into eastern Ukraine to protest supposed oppression by authorities in Kiev, giving Putin the chance to intervene under the pretense of protecting ethnic Russians—just as Adolf Hitler used ethnic Germans to justify his occupation of Czechoslovakia before World War II. The Ukrainian crisis is not a repeat of 1939, said Gerald Seib in The Wall Street Journal, but it should serve as a wake-up call to NATO. Since the Cold War ended, the alliance has struggled to find a role. Is it an international peacekeeping body or Europe’s border guard? Crimea has now made NATO’s mission clear: contain “a Russia that clearly isn’t ready to accept a diminished role in the world.”
This showdown is “likely to reorder global relations in a significant way,” said Michael Hirsh in NationalJournal.com. The Kremlin could retaliate against U.S. sanctions by trying to “delay or even stymie” nuclear talks with Iran, or by blocking supplies being sent through Russia to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. This new “Cool War” will be nothing like the great ideological struggle of the Cold War. But a poor relationship between Washington and Moscow could make the world a much more dangerous place.