Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea on Tuesday was accompanied by a grand piece of theater in the gilded St. George’s Hall of the
Kremlin and disdain for the West and its sanctions and threats. The United States and the European Union are likely to impose added sanctions beyond the measures ordered against a few senior Kremlin officials, but there is virtually no chance that Putin could be coerced into reversing what the overwhelming majority of Russians and Crimeans seemed to regard as the righting of a historical anomaly. It may also
prove to be a watershed in post-Soviet East-West relations, with a lot less for the Russians to celebrate.
The first order of business for the United States and Europe is to make sure that Putin is not emboldened to contemplate a similar takeover in southeast Ukraine, a mining and industrial region whose pro-Muscovite majority has been restive since the government turnover in Kiev three weeks ago. In his Kremlin speech, the Russian president insisted that “we do not want a partition of Ukraine,” presumably meaning the rest of Ukraine, but the West cannot be lulled by such assurances.
For the present, the United States and European Union should continue pressing to send observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or the United Nations to southeastern Ukraine. At the same time, they must leave no doubt that a new Russian violation of Ukrainian territory will trigger more painful sanctions. Above all, Germany — Russia’s largest European trading partner — must leave no doubt that it is prepared to impose painful economic costs.
There are bound to be noisy recriminations over “who lost Crimea.” But there was probably not much the West could have done, given the chaos and disunity in Ukraine and the absence of credible levers.
At this point, the West will have to come up with significant aid for Ukraine, conditioned on efforts by the Ukrainians to end the kleptocracy that has reigned in Kiev for most of the past 23 years. Europe should also take steps to reduce its dependence on Russian gas, with assistance from the United States. Finally, the European Union must devise a more effective way to react to emergencies than to seek a consensus of its 28 members, which delayed an effective response in the current crisis.
In the end, though, the biggest cost to Russia will not be anything the West decides to do. President Barack Obama was right when he warned Putin that “further provocations will achieve nothing except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world.” That is not in Russia’s interest, or in the West’s interest. The rift with Moscow also threatens efforts, which resumed Tuesday, to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, since Russia is one of the participants in the talks.
Putin would have the world believe that he is only doing what any leader would; that he is restoring Crimea to its rightful ruler; that he’s protecting Russians from Ukrainian fascists; that he’s resisting Western efforts to drive Russia into a corner. Yes, the West probably should be more aware of the complexities and passions that are still present in the former Soviet expanse. But Putin should be made to understand that his authoritarian rule and imperial illusions are the problem, and not some perceived slights from the West.