The charade under way in Crimea has a predictable outcome, and it has historical antecedents. A referendum on whether to return the Crimean peninsula to Russia is likely to be rigged and, even it it’s not, it will be illegal.
As President Obama observed on Thursday, any debate over Crimea’s future necessarily requires a prominent role for the Ukraine government, and that is not what Vladimir Putin and the pro-Russian agitators in Crimea have in mind. For them, think Austria in 1938.
The Anschluss, as it became known, was the illegal German occupation and annexation of its neighbor Austria. It’s not a perfect analogy, but close enough to justify comparisons between Russia’s maneuvers today and those of prewar Nazi Germany. Back then a March referendum on the question of annexation was rendered moot when, a day before the planned vote, Austrian Nazis seized control of the government. Soon after, German troops entered Austria and a phony vote was held, upholding the annexation of their country. Germany cynically claimed that more than 99 percent of Austrians voted in favor of the loss of their sovereignty.
If that’s what Putin and his supporters have in mind for Crimea, there is little that anyone else can do about it. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that this was the endgame that Putin had in mind when he interfered last year with Ukraine’s plans to form a closer alliance with the European Union. This, after all, is the man who still grieves over the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the constitution and violate international law,” Obama said. “We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.”
The problem is what to do about it. The United States is making the moves that it can, pledging $1 billion in aid to Ukraine while freezing the assets and blocking the U.S. visas of anyone determined to have impeded democracy, contributed to violence or engaged in corruption in Ukraine. The European Union has also offered at least $15 billion in aid.
The Obama administration is also looking at accelerating efforts to export natural gas to Ukraine in an effort to undercut the economic influence of Russia, which depends upon energy exports for up to half the government’s revenues.
In addition, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has sent warplanes to patrol the skies over Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, at the request of those countries. He has also boosted training flights with the Polish military. Poland is Ukraine’s western neighbor.
It would be a mistake – Putin’s mistake – if this crisis escalates into a military confrontation. While U.S. flights in the region could be seen as a provocation, they are more likely to help contain Putin’s wild ambitions, whatever they may be.
It will be important for all to remember that the importance of ending this crisis has to take precedence over domestic politics and even over the urge to punish Russia. Putin is more likely to pull back if he is given a graceful exit from the mess he caused.
Or maybe he doesn’t want that. Maybe he’s a throwback not just to the Soviet Union, but to March of 1938.