For all the trouble the Ukraine and Crimea issues have caused the world in recent weeks, for all of President Vladimir Putin’s bluster, conniving, disinformation and bullying, there is still a reasonable compromise that may not produce a perfect outcome – but is very much one we can live with.
Make this weekend's Crimea referendum nonbinding. And, if the vote is sufficiently close or sufficiently in favor of joining Russia, agree that a future referendum in a year or two could settle the issue definitively.
This approach avoids a showdown with Putin that we will not win. Last minute diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Kerry give the appearance of going the extra mile, but would seem to have hardly any better prospects than his efforts at the Geneva II peace talks on Syria. We have to avoid the temptation of logging miles on airplanes and talking ceaselessly as a substitute for realistic policy.
We need not be purists on either partition or intervention. On partition, the international community has not only largely recognized Kosovo and other newly independent states from the former Yugoslavia in recent years, but supported the division of Sudan as well. And we may be headed for partition in Syria someday too, to say nothing of Scotland or Quebec.
To be sure, Putin has been aggressive in this crisis. But he has not killed anyone and he did move into Crimea only in the absence of a clear political framework in Kiev, since the February 21 agreement fell apart as soon as it was negotiated. One need not subscribe to Putin's view of the world to see that this crisis falls short of extreme or brutal aggression.
Still, the situation cannot be condoned in its current form. For one thing, Putin's behavior could get worse, and we need to show him our resolve. Second, the Russian intervention in Crimea has not been legal, honest, or morally justifiable, since the Ukrainian government despite its questionable legitimacy has not used or threatened violence against Russian speaking Ukrainian citizens. Putin's pretext for Russian involvement is therefore largely fabricated, and unjustifiable.
But if a referendum on Crimea's future could happen calmly, after a prolonged period of debate and discussion, with international monitors and without the presence of Russian regular and irregular troops breathing down the necks of Ukrainian voters as they go to the polls, it could be acceptable in light of all of the above.
That kind of vote requires time to prepare, and to let tensions cool, and to find an alternative to heavy-handed Russian occupation of the region as the security backdrop to any binding decision by the people of Crimea on their political future.
So while we would have to sanction Putin and his cronies if they proceed with rapid annexation, a nonbinding referendum Sunday followed by a more orderly and official vote in 2015 or 2016 could produce an outcome that all can live with.