In a strange act of historical coincidence, it is 60 years ago this week that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed the Crimea over to the Ukraine. It might not have seemed a big deal in those days â€“ everyone was part of one big, unhappy Soviet Union. But that act has created todayâ€™s geopolitical crisis.
Russia has now made its move. It has essentially detached Crimea from the Ukrainian governmentâ€™s control. What remains unclear is what Vladimir Putin wants to do with it. Incorporate it into Russia? Use it as leverage to negotiate a deal with Ukraine? Both?
In any event, Washingtonâ€™s response should be clear and forceful. Russia has violated all kinds of laws and norms, including most crucially, a treaty that it signed with Ukraine guaranteeing that countryâ€™s borders, in return for which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons.
For Washington, for Americans, for people around the world, it would be a terrible precedent to allow issues like this to be resolved not through diplomacy, but by force. If Russia could detach parts of neighboring countries with impunity, wonâ€™t other great powers like China decide that they too can act in such ways?
So what can be done? Well, for starters President Obama should cancel entirely his attendenace at the G-8 summit to be held in Sochi in June. He should try to persuade the other major powers to follow suit. Russiaâ€™s membership in the G-8 should be suspended. Remember, the G-8 was created to recognize that post-Soviet Russia was behaving like an honorable member of the international community, not a rogue state . If the behavior has changed, Russiaâ€™s status should also change.
Militarily there is less that can be done. After all, Russiaâ€™s military budget is about 18 times that of Ukraine. But NATO should restart talks on providing assurances to countries like Poland â€“ including perhaps building the missile defense system that was abandoned.
In economic terms, Washington and the EU should consider the only sanctions that would be effective: ones targeted specifically at individuals who could be held responsible for these acts of aggression against Ukraine.
Washington cannot do much to stop Vladimir Putin as he creates facts on the ground in Crimea. But step back and consider what a strategic disaster this is for him. Ukraine has slipped out of his orbit and most of the population there is going to be hostile to Russia for generations. Countries like Poland that had eased up relations with Moscow will now view it with great suspicion. All European countries will put their relations with Russia under review. Even China will surely oppose the brazen violation of national sovereignty, something Beijing is always concerned about. Within Russia people have seen that Putin is terrified of a democracy movement and will brutally oppose it, not really the image he wants to present.
So Putin gets Crimea, which is only 60 percent Russian. Parts of it will be deeply hostile to this Russian takeover â€“ including the population of Crimean Tartars, who are Muslim and getting radicalized. Remember, Crimea is in the Northern Caucasus, the area where Russia has been battling a ferocious Muslim insurgency.
So even as he lines up one more piece â€“ or half piece â€“ on his chessboard, Putin will find that the price he has paid for it will be quite high.