The result of the referendum in Crimea on Sunday was predictable. Close to a hundred percent of the voters chose to break away from Ukraine and return to Russia’s fold.
For Crimea’s ethnic Russians, who dominate that region’s populace, being part of the motherland again is a long-cherished deliverance. In 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics decreed that Crimea was to be annexed to Ukraine. The supreme leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, was a Ukrainian. The annexation, the Kremlin explained, was its gift to Ukraine, and acknowledges “the economic commonalities, territorial closeness, and communication and cultural links” between Crimea and Ukraine.
No one challenged the decree, not the Ukrainians, not the Crimeans. It was 1954, and inside the Iron Curtain the Kremlin’s word was law.
Sixty years later, the Iron Curtain has rusted away, and most of the Soviet Union’s former states have turned their backs on communism, lured by the promise of prosperity being dangled by the West.
Ukraine was one such ex-Soviet republic that was beginning to lean more towards what was once despised as capitalist decadence. It is this looming political turnaround that triggered the Cold War-style standoff between Russia and the West.
Moscow never expected Kiev to give in to the overtures of the European Union. And Vladimir Putin has no intention of giving away Ukraine or any other state that he considers as a key element in building a new Russian empire.
In reclaiming Crimea, however, Mr. Putin may have bitten off more than he can chew. The United States and its European allies have refused to recognize the referendum, saying it was carried out under the gun. Ukraine’s interim president accused Moscow of preparing an invasion plan, saying the referendum’s result ”has been pre-planned by the Kremlin as a formal justification to send in its troops and start a war that will destroy people’s lives and the economic prospects for Crimea.”
Already, the G8, the grouping of the world’s biggest industrialized nations, is threatening to ditch its scheduled summit in Sochi, Russia, and hold it instead in London.
The US and its allies in Europe meanwhile, hinted broadly of sanctions against Russia, including visa bans and potential asset freezes.
Is Mr. Putin ready to face the fallout from his actions in Crimea? Perhaps it’s too early to tell. But when the West begins to apply the squeeze, will he be able to squirm out of it?
Mr. Putin is vastly popular among Russians for the moment, and he is riding this wave of popularity to boost the game of brinkmanship he is playing with the West.
Following the announcement of the referendum result, Russia’s parliament wasted no time passing legislation that opens the door for Crimea to become part of the Russian realm “in the very near future.”
The applause may resound now, but when the Russians begin to feel the economic squeeze, when the breadlines begin to form again, they might very well pin the blame on their leader.
If that happens, Vladimir Putin could end up in the dustbin of history, along with his dream of Russian glory.