This Sunday, the Ukrainian region of Crimea — a strategically important peninsula on the Black Sea with a majority Russian-speaking population — will vote on a referendum to withdraw from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. But far from a legitimate discussion over Crimea’s political relationship with Kyiv, this is democracy at gunpoint. There are thousands of Russian troops occupying Crimea’s streets, Russian authorities are making every effort to keep out “provocateurs” and anyone else who might rally against Russian annexation, and the exact wording of the referendum guarantees that whichever way the citizens of Crimea vote, they’ll end up further from Kyiv and closer to Moscow.
What’s happening in Ukraine isn’t just a violation of a country’s sovereignty, it’s blatant territorial expansionism.
For the United States and the international community, the crisis in Ukraine is about protecting the rules, norms, and institutions we’ve worked so hard to build since World War II. The forced annexation of another country’s territory goes against the most basic principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter, the Helsinki Accords, the Budapest Memorandum, the Ukrainian-Russian Treaty of Friendship, and just about every other international treaty of the past 70 years.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Russian President Vladimir Putin use this page of his playbook. Even going back to the Kosovo War in 1999, when he was national security advisor, Putin has tried to slow the European integration of former Soviet bloc countries by using Russian-speaking enclaves as an excuse to military intervene and force its neighbors back into Russia’s gravitational pull. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 under similar pretenses when it felt Tbilisi was leaning too far West, which resulted in the border regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia declaring independence from Georgia and becoming Russia protectorates.
If Crimea votes to join the Russian Federation this Sunday and Russia annexes the peninsula, it would represent an escalation of Russian efforts to forcibly keep former Soviet bloc allies within their grasp. The United States should make it clear to Putin that it will uphold the international rules, norms, and institutions that govern acceptable international behavior, maintain the credibility of its transatlantic alliances, and support efforts to establish a functioning and democratic Ukrainian government and economy.
Every effort should be made between now and Sunday to find a non-violent, negotiated resolution to the crisis that restores Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Russia has several clear, tangible interests at stake in Ukraine, including the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, Ukraine’s role as the major transit hub for Russian natural gas exports to Europe, and the 7.7 million ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. Putin puts all of these interests and any hope for continued political influence in Kyiv at risk by annexing Crimea.
In exchange for Moscow formally deferring on the status of Crimea to U.N. mediation, the interim Ukrainian government could announce steps to support the rights of the Russian-speaking minority, uphold existing Crimean autonomy, and reaffirm Russia’s lease on the Sevastopol naval base. A formal OSCE mission to Ukraine could be established to ensure that the rights of ethnic Russians are being protected, just as it did in Latvia and Estonia in the mid-1990s. These steps would allow Putin to withdraw his troops from Ukraine while claiming to have successfully accomplished his stated goal of protecting the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. All parties would agree to table discussion on Ukrainian accession to any regional organization, such as NATO, the European Union, or the Russian-backed Eurasian Union. These steps would set the stage for multilateral economic assistance to get the Ukrainian government back on track and presidential elections in May to reestablish a legitimate, democratically elected government in Kyiv.
But Russia may not be willing to accept a deal at this point. Putin and his close circle of advisors may be convinced that they’ve gone too far down this path to turn back to the negotiating table. If the referendum continues as planned this Sunday and Moscow formally annexes Crimea, the United States and its allies in Europe should make it clear that there is a cost for violating its treaty obligations to respect Ukrainian territorial integrity.
As detailed in the Center for American Progress’s new report, “Concrete Steps to Address the Crisis in Ukraine,” the U.S. has a range of diplomatic and economic tools to impose a cost on Russia. The U.S. can isolate Russia within the international community by restricting its participation in the G-8 and the G-20, key forums that shape the global economy and give Russia international prestige. The U.S. can create further distance between Russia and its closest friends, such as China and Belarus, who have not supported Russia’s actions in Crimea. And the U.S. can convince key international blocs, such as the non-Russian BRICS members or the G-77, traditionally strong advocates of the importance of national sovereignty, to publically state their support for Ukrainian territorial integrity.
On the economic front, U.S. and European governments can hit Russia in its pocketbook by placing economic sanctions, freezing assets, and imposing travel restrictions on Russian government officials and business elite. Even as Congress continues to debate a bill that would impose new sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, the Obama administration, in coordination with its allies in Europe, can make life difficult for Russian economic interests simply by more thoroughly enforcing existing laws on money laundering and organized crime syndicates, taking action against human rights violators named in the Magnitsky Act, and tying down Russian assets in protracted trade disputes at the World Trade Organization. None of these actions would require new legislation, just a more focused effort by the U.S. Trade Representative and the U.S. Treasury targeting Russian individuals, companies, and assets.
The next move in the Ukrainian crisis belongs to Russia. How it responds to the referendum this Sunday will shape the next phase of the crisis. If Moscow defers on the status of Crimea, then our focus will become how best to rally around Ukraine and rebuild a badly fractured society and economy. But Russia shows no signs of slowing down right now, and Sunday is fast approaching.
Ken Sofer is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses primarily on U.S. policy in the Middle East and China.