March 17, 2014

Russian Referendum in Crimea Passes by a Threaded Gun Barrel

Obama warns of “costs,” but Putin takes advantage of U.S. weakness.

Residents of Crimea, a peninsula in south Ukraine, voted Sunday to secede and join Russia. The regional parliament immediately adopted the ruble and moved clocks forward two hours to match Moscow time. Some 97% supported the referendum, but The Wall Street Journal explains why it was a farce: “Vladimir Putin consolidated his hold on Crimea Sunday by forcing a referendum with only two choices. Residents of the Ukrainian region could vote either to join Russia immediately or to do so eventually. The result was a foregone conclusion, midwifed by Russian troops and anti-Ukraine propaganda.”

The White House responded with a statement: “President Obama emphasized that the Crimean ‘referendum,’ which violates the Ukrainian constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention, would never be recognized by the United States and the international community.” Additionally, Barack Obama said, “Russia’s actions were in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and, in coordination with our European partners, we are prepared to impose additional costs on Russia for its actions.” He’s been saying this for weeks to no avail.

Russia said it will move quickly to annex Crimea, thumbing its nose at the West’s objections. In fact, Russian troops have occupied a natural gas plant on Ukrainian mainland, and there are tens of thousands of troops along the border between the two nations. It would seem Putin’s real goal is to reassemble the old Soviet empire, the collapse of which he said in 2005 was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Until “costs” and “consequences” tangibly take a toll on Putin, he’s not going to care what Obama reads from a teleprompter, or change that thinking.

Quite the contrary, in fact. Ever since Obama’s presidential candidacy, he has telegraphed only weakness, cloaked as conciliatory “smart power.” (Has there ever been a more arrogant self-summation of an administration’s foreign policy?) He began his tenure with the miserably failed “reset” of relations with Russia, and quickly abandoned George W. Bush’s missile defense systems in Eastern Europe in order to placate Putin. The commander in chief has also been obsessed with gutting the U.S. military. All of this only served to embolden the former KGB agent against the former community organizer.

There are a few things the U.S. can do: Withdraw from the horribly Moscow-slanted arms treaty known as New START, re-establish plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe, supply the Ukrainian military and NATO allies, export natural gas to Europe to relieve its dependence on Russia, and enact sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs (this last one has already begun). Putin may have Crimea, but it should be a painful acquisition.

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