A defiant Russian President Vladimir Putin cemented his grip on the Crimean Peninsula this week, as Crimean voters were on the verge of approving a referendum to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia. Putin spurned Western nations’ protests on the eve of the March 16 referendum, which was to take place with at least 18,000 Russian troops stationed in Crimea and Ukrainian military bases surrounded by pro-Russian forces. Russia’s parliament said it would allow Crimea—which has a majority Russian population—to become a Russian region. Secretary of State John Kerry said the annexation would violate international law, and warned that the Obama administration was prepared to punish Russia with visa bans and banking and business sanctions. “I don’t want to go into all of the detail,” he said, “except to say this: It can get ugly fast [if] the wrong choices are made.”
As President Obama pledged support and financial aid to Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in a White House meeting, the U.S. business community was lobbying the administration not to impose tough sanctions on Russia, over fears that many American companies with interests there would be hurt. Germany—which relies on Russia for a third of its natural gas—and other European nations were also hesitant to hit Moscow with sanctions. European Union leaders did agree to slap travel restrictions and asset freezes on Russian officials if Crimea is annexed.
What the editorials said
Crimea’s plebiscite—announced 10 days after Russia’s invasion—“is by definition a joke,” said Bloomberg.com. “Yet the implications here are serious: No major country has annexed territory since World War II.” The annexation will be dangerously destabilizing: Ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and other former Soviet republics may also start agitating to rejoin the Motherland, risking the possibility of violent ethnic clashes throughout the region.
Putin must pay a steep price for his aggression, said The New York Times. If he annexes Crimea, the U.S. and Europe should bar Moscow’s banks from international markets, cutting “Russian corporations off from sorely needed foreign borrowing.” The Western assets of Russia’s billionaire oligarchs should be seized. If the U.S. and Europe cannot accept the economic sacrifices needed to punish Putin, the West will have no leverage.
What the columnists said
Sanctions might work if Putin were in touch with reality, said Louise Branson in USA Today. But he’s been surrounded by sycophants and propaganda organs during his 14 years in power, and Putin’s “perception of reality is extremely distorted.” The dictator who poses bare-chested on a horse truly seems to believe he’s a superman destined to restore the Russian empire, and that “he can seize what he wants to and nobody can or will stop him.” Sanctions won’t deter Putin, because the only thing a bully understands is force, said Jim Thomas in The Wall Street Journal. NATO allies should permanently station troops in Poland, Romania, and other front-line Eastern Europe states, and back them up with missile defense systems. That would firmly warn Russia not to encroach “on their sovereignty in the name of ‘protecting ethnic Russian populations.’”
Crimea “may never again be part of Ukraine,” said Chrystia Freeland in The New York Times.But no matter what happens in coming weeks and months, Putin and his authoritarian vision for the region “have already lost.” Even the Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine are proud Ukrainians, and Putin’s invasion of Crimea is succeeding only in uniting the country’s different factions in favor of democratic rule, rather than subjugation by Moscow.
“Putin’s long-term prospects are bleak,” said Eric Posner in Slate.com. By grabbing Crimea—“a poor, tiny region”—he has lost the bigger fight over Ukraine, which will tilt further toward Europe. He has spooked foreign investors needed to energize Russia’s moribund economy. Soviet satellites like Armenia and Tajikistan will refuse to join his Eurasian Union, out of fear the project will lead to Russian domination. Far from restoring Russia to greatness, Putin has guaranteed its future as “a declining state that can do little more than bully a few impoverished and geopolitically insignificant neighbors.”