With a good 60,000 Russian troops massed on the border, and no effective way to vote in favor remaining part of Ukraine, the Crimean independence referendum went about as expected, with almost 97 percent voting in favor of annexation into Russia. Just about everyone else in the world declared the vote illegal, with the forlorn exception of China, which abstained from the relevant U.N. Security Council vote. It’s notable that China couldn’t quite bring itself to endorse what Vladimir Putin is up to in Crimea. (Everyone else on the Security Council voted to condemn the referendum, but then Russia vetoed the motion.)
So Russia is now supposedly “isolated,” whatever that means, while the Crimean Parliament formally declared independence from Ukraine on Monday morning, and promptly set about nationalizing all Ukrainian property that happened to fall on the wrong side of the new borders. Fox News reports Crimean representatives are off to Moscow to hammer out the details of annexation, with Russian officials saying annexation “is just a matter of time,” perhaps only a few days or weeks.
Russians in Crimea called the new Ukrainian government a bunch of “unprincipled clowns.” Ethnic Tartars in Crimean called the independence referendum “a clown show, a circus.” All these clowns, and yet nobody’s laughing. Ukrainian ships are trapped in Crimean waters by Russian naval forces. Ukrainian troops in Crimea are besieged in their bases, facing renewed calls to surrender.
Ukrainians and Tartars stuck below decks in Crimea as it sets sail for Russian hegemony anticipate rough seas ahead:
Ethnic Ukrainians interviewed outside the Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral of Vladimir and Olga said they refused to take part in the referendum, calling it an illegal charade stage-managed by Moscow. Some said they were scared of the potential for widespread discrimination and harassment in the coming weeks, similar to what happened in parts of nearby Georgia, another former Soviet republic, after its 2008 war with Russia.
“We’re just not going to play these separatist games,” said Yevgen Sukhodolsky, a 41-year-old prosecutor from Saki, a town outside Simferopol. “Putin is the fascist. The Russian government is fascist.”
Vasyl Ovcharuk, a retired gas pipe layer who worked at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, predicted dark days ahead for Crimea.
“This will end up in military action, in which peaceful people will suffer. And that means everybody. Shells and bullets are blind,” he said.
There are looming fears throughout the rest of Ukraine that Russia isn’t finished devouring them yet. Over the weekend, a small detachment of Russian troops actually ventured beyond Crimea, into Ukrainian territory, to seize control of a natural gas facility, for the stated purpose of ensuring the continued flow of gas into independent Crimea. The Russians have been muttering darkly about the need to move forces into eastern Ukraine to “protect” ethnic Russians from potential oppression. At least one city in eastern Ukraine, Donetsk, has seen demonstrations calling for secession from Ukraine and alignment with Russia.
The European Union is preparing for a round of sanctions against Russia, with talk of freezing assets and denying visas for certain Russian officials. Evidently they’re hesitating just long enough to give Putin an opportunity to “de-escalate” the situation, but there have been no signs he plans to back down.
On the contrary, this diplomatic and economic “isolation” might be just what Putin wanted. Russia was trying to put together a “Eurasian Union” to counter the European Union before the Ukrainian crisis began; their man in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych, was supposed to make Ukraine part of that equation, but his sticky fingers got him deposed. (One pictures Putin on the phone with him, snarling “You had one job, Viktor Yanukovych….”) EU sanctions might sting Russia a bit, but they’ll also hurt the Europeans, and they might help to jump-start that Eurasian Union project.
And if Russia can stare down the U.S. and European Union, pushing them back from harsh sanctions, so much the better for Putin. There have already been rumblings that Russia might abandon the dollar and tear up loan papers from American banks. No less an authority than George Soros – a man who knows a few things about ruining economies for fun and profit – warns that the European Union might fall apart, if it plays its cards wrong against Russia.
Putin’s adventures in eastern Ukraine have consolidated his grip on Russia, bringing his popularity ratings to soaring heights, while his adversaries – notably President Barack Obama – plummet to all-time low ratings with their own electorates. Lost in all the speculation about what might happen next is that Putin has already accomplished an extremely important objective: containing the Euromaidan movement that led to the ouster of Yanukovych. Russia itself seems to have been effectively inoculated against the spread of such protests – that’s one of the reasons Russia’s state-dominated media have been screaming that the Ukrainian demonstrators are “fascists” – and anyone else in the old Soviet orbit is going to think twice about getting cozy with the European Union.
If the United States and European Union pull the trigger on tough sanctions and begin an economic conflict, they’ll finally be playing the same game as Putin… but they’ll be sitting across the table from a global adversary who doesn’t seem worried about losing. After all, ideological blindness in the Obama Administration already let him make a dozen strategic moves before his opponents understood they were his opponents.
Update: “Smart power” alert, as America’s U.N. ambassador Samantha Power accosts Russia’s Vitaly Churkin and tells him Crimea is still legally Ukrainian territory, while Churkin’s aides laugh at her:
Update: The UK Daily Mail reports that Ukraine is mobilizing its army and calling up reserves for a possible armed confrontation with Russia. They’re outnumbered at least 3 to 1 by active Russian forces poised to invade, and 6 to 1 by the total strength of the Russian military, but they can at least make it clear that further Russian incursions into Ukraine will result in war.
Meanwhile, the head of Russia’s state-run news agency went on the air to inform the United States that “we can turn you to ash,” in case the American government has any ideas about intervening in Ukraine. Just in case anyone misses the fine nuances of this threat, there was a picture of a mushroom cloud on the screen behind him.
Update: Having evidently concluded that the mere threat of sanctions wasn’t adjusting Russia’s attitude, both the U.S. and European Union announced sanctions on Monday morning. The EU is imposing travel bans and asset freezes on 21 Russian and Ukrainian officials. The United States followed suit, targeting “several officials in President Vladimir V. Putin’s inner circle” according to the New York Times, along with deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, but not Putin himself.
Update: Further grist for the “Putin wanted these sanctions” mill: Russian stocks surged, and the ruble grew stronger, after the announcement of European and American sanctions.