There will be a temptation to consider the Crimea “lost” after Sunday’s plebiscite (under armed guard) and Putin’s dramatic acceptance of the same this morning (Telegraph, UK).
Despite the fanfare and forces on the ground in Crimea, the Ukrainian province can still be saved.
For starters, the fellow who claims to speak for the province isn’t from the party of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych (Party of Regions), but rather a radical pro-Russian party (Russian Unity) that couldn’t get to 5% in the last free Crimean election (Time). In addition, the Russia Unity leader (Sergei Aksyonov) managed to get himself declared leader of the province by a parliamentary vote that was not only conducted under armed guards loyal to him, but also officially included “aye” votes from members who are insisting they were nowhere near the building when the vote took place (Aftenposten, Norway). Meanwhile, Crimean Tatar leaders (admittedly, not an unbiased source) are claiming that Askyonov-regime claims of turnout are ridiculously inflated, and that only a minority of Crimeans actually voted on Sunday (Euromaidan PR).
In other words, the notion that Putin and Aksyonov speak for a majority of Crimeans is anywhere from tenuous to laughable.
As such, there are things the United States and its allies can do – well short of war - that can free Crimea from its current plight. I’ve listed a few of them before: Asset-freezes on certain Russians, military aid to Ukraine, and support for the resistance in Crimea (details here). To be fair, the last one (which I think has the most potential) may already be under way (the Clinton Administration was aiding the Serbian democratic resistance in 2000 without anyone knowing until years later), but I suspect if it were, the Administration would have leaked it already (not that I would have objected to said leak). Either way, it should be done.
One thing I can’t emphasize enough: Russians are terrible imperialists. No one who comes under their thumb enjoys it for very long (if at all). Even among those who did vote in Sunday’s referendum, there will be plenty of Crimeans feeling regret very soon.
It is far, far too early to write off Crimea as lost.
Cross-posted to Virginia Virtucon