The best way to get Crimea back is for Ukraine to become a prosperous democracy–with the West’s help.
It’s not the voting that matters, Joseph Stalin once observed, but the counting. At the illegitimate referendum to be held in Crimea on March 16th, the Kalashnikov-wielding men in balaclavas and the absurdly skewed ballot paper may also play a role. Like Vladimir Putin’s surreal claim that the elite troops who have overrun the peninsula are merely local volunteers, the referendum would be laughable, were it not–like Mr Putin’s invasion–dreadfully real.
The basic result of this sham plebiscite is certain: a rigged decision to secede from Ukraine (see page 33). The question for the West, and for the authorities in Kiev, is how to respond. The answer has two distinct parts. The West must be vigorous in its denunciations of what is, in effect, a seizure of sovereign Ukrainian territory–much more so than it has been so far. But the Ukrainians themselves should be patient.
As might be expected of a capricious autocrat who has ruled for 14 years, Mr Putin’s next move is unpredictable. He might try formally to subsume Crimea into Russia; his own parliament is paving the way for that illegal land-grab. He might choose to wait, leaving Crimea to languish as a twilight non-state.
Either way, by invading Ukraine, and recognising both the bogus referendum and “the Goblin” (as Sergei Aksenov, the sinister leader of Crimea’s local putschists, is known), he has trampled on international law and subverted the post-cold-war world order. The United States has begun to punish Russia for its offences, through visa bans and asset freezes. The response should be much fiercer, encompassing Mr Putin’s entire nomenklatura and Kremlin-linked companies.
For its part, the interim government that took over last month after Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s disgraced former president, fled to Russia, has three broad options over Crimea. All are unpalatable–but not equally. The first is to fight the Russians for the peninsula.
That would be a catastrophe, even if the new authorities had a stronger mandate, and were not already struggling to assert control over the rest of the country, and to stop it going bust. Ukraine would lose any war with Russia, at a cost of many lives; it could not expect outside powers to come to its aid. Ukraine’s armed forces, particularly those besieged and harassed in their bases in Crimea, have avoided conflict. They should maintain their heroic restraint.
The second option for the Ukrainians is to agitate and protest as best they can, as they are plainly entitled to. But for a preview of what that approach might entail, they should glance across the Black Sea. Two breakaway regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, were for years used by the Kremlin to destabilise that country (until, in 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to “protect” them).
Georgia’s frail polity was poisoned by its grievances; energy that should have been used to build a functioning state was sapped. If Crimea becomes the focus of Ukraine’s politics, its bid to become an independent democracy will be nobbled by nationalism and Russian meddling. This is probably the outcome that Mr Putin intends.
The least-bad course for Kiev is painfully to accept that, for now, Crimea is lost, in fact though not in law. That means negotiating a peaceful exit for those besieged Ukrainian servicemen. And for the Tatars, a put-upon Crimean minority loth to live under Russian rule (having been deported en masse by Stalin in 1944), it means securing as much protection as Ukraine and its allies can muster. After that, Ukraine’s priorities should be to stage free elections in what remains of the country, install a legitimate national government, revamp the economy and create durable democratic institutions.
A Marshall plan for Ukraine
The West’s other task–and the best strategy for restoring Crimea to Ukraine–is to help it. The European Union has begun to ease tariffs on Ukrainian goods: that is a start, but it must go much further, and fast, with financial support to stave off bankruptcy and then, in tandem with the IMF, to rebuild the state. That should come with closer formal ties and as much technical assistance as Kiev can swallow: in effect, a mini-Marshall Plan. With luck and time, the people of Crimea will look north at a prosperous democracy and push to rejoin it.
Part of the trouble with Mr Putin is the studied asymmetry of his tactics. He gleefully stoops to thuggery–insulting foreign leaders, harassing diplomats, assassinating critics, and, now, invading his neighbour and pretending he hasn’t–knowing full well that Western leaders cannot copy him. But the West has a powerful tool of its own that he can never match: a way of life, based on rules and freedom, that people all over the world crave.
That includes Russians, many of whom long to escape Mr Putin’s corrupt and increasingly repressive authoritarianism, and especially, Ukrainians, some of whom have recently died in the streets in their quest for better government. Helping Ukrainians to achieve that goal is the surest way to resist–and ultimately reverse–Mr Putin’s crimes.
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