Sunday, March 16, 2014 will mark a pivotal moment in Ukrainian and Russian history. Crimeans will take to the polls and vote on a referendum to either remain an autonomous republic or join Russia. With thousands of Russian troops amassed in Crimea and along Ukraine’s eastern border, they will vote under gunpoint. As one Ukrainian told me, the results Moscow announces will be the only number that matters. The referendum should remind the public of Saddam Hussein’s epic win in 2002, wherein he ran unopposed and won 100% of the votes; it is, simply, a farce.
The long-run implications are less clear. Ayn Rand would easily compare Putin to Russia’s Soviet past, where the ideals of cronyism and nationalism embodied by Putin and his vision for a strong Russia sweep their media and bend public opinion. Putin is a thug, taking what he thinks is his even if it destroys the institutions underpinning peace such as the G8 and the global economy. He knows Russia paid no real pearly for invading Georgia in 2008, and he must assume the benefits of annexing Crimea outweigh any perceived costs.
Yet Putin is no idiot. The blatant power grab for Crimea is barely tolerated by world leaders, while a larger grab for core cities sitting on Ukraine’s border-think Donetsk or Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city after Kiev-would raise the stakes far too high and almost certainly provoke war. The price for peace is letting Russia annex Crimea.
Going forward, the West must make it clear that any further aggression beyond Russia’s existing borders will not be tolerated. Meanwhile, the EU should work to pull ex-Soviet states closer to its orbit, NATO must work harder to confront Russian aggression, and the USA must backstop NATO and other institutions like the IMF and World Bank to ensure Ukraine and nation-states like it have the financial capital and democratic institutions they need to be transparent, well-governed, and economically viable.
Meanwhile, my heart goes out to the people in Crimea fearing for their safety, their lives, and their children’s lives. They did not ask to be part of a larger geopolitical struggle. They did not, as Putin suggests, ask for Russia’s protection. Under a fair and freely held vote a majority of them would never invite Russia to annex their land.
For better or for worse, Sunday will be a day the world cannot and should not ever forget.