Editor’s Note from
: The Russian military occupation of the Crimea and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s attempts to railroad a political settlement that would separate Crimea from the rest of Ukraine is the latest, and perhaps the most formidable, foreign policy test for the Obama administration. Events on the ground are fast-moving and defy easy categorization, further complicating policymaking. Steven Pifer, a senior fellow here at Brookings as well as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during several pivotal years in the Clinton administration, offers his perspective on the challenges ahead and the best approach for the United States and its allies.

As the Russian military completed its armed seizure of Crimea, the regional parliament in Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation and scheduled a referendum to ratify that course. No one should doubt how the referendum will turn out. The outcome will confront Moscow, Kyiv, and the West with uneasy and fateful choices.

The Russian army has seized all major locations on Crimea, blocked Ukrainian units in their bases, and laid a minefield to cordon the peninsula off from the mainland. Led by a prime minister who reportedly once was known in local organized crime circles as the “Goblin,” the Crimean parliament on March 6 voted 78-0 with eight abstentions to join Russia. Some deputies who might have opposed the motion were prevented from taking part in the vote.

The parliament also scheduled a March 16 referendum. The ballot offers two choices: join Russia or restore the 1992 constitution, which would grant Crimea substantially greater autonomy. Keeping Crimea a part of Ukraine under the current constitutional arrangements does not appear on the ballot.

In a different world, with no upheaval in Kyiv and no Russian occupation of Crimea, a substantial portion of the Crimean population might favor drawing closer to, or even joining, Russia. Ethnic Russians constitute about 60 percent of the population. The peninsula was a part of Russia until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine, something that did not matter much as long as there was a Soviet Union.

That said, 54 percent of Crimeans voted for an independent Ukraine on the eve of the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse. So, in different times, the choice might not be that clear-cut.

These, however, are not different times. One way or another, the referendum will produce a vote to join Russia. And the referendum will lack legitimacy. It will be conducted as armed Russian soldiers patrol the streets and Ukrainian television channels have been shut down, replaced by Russian broadcasting with its decidedly propagandistic slant. Crimean Tatars, composing 12 percent of the population, will boycott the vote.

The referendum is illegal under Ukrainian law. That does not seem to bother Moscow, though the Russians would be quite bothered were the Chechens to call for a referendum on independence—something the Kremlin fought two bloody wars to prevent.

For the past two decades, most of Europe has generally agreed that ethnic minorities have no right to unilaterally separate themselves, a principle the Russians have strongly backed when it has come to Russia. The principal exception in Europe was Kosovo, a victim of Serbian ethnic cleansing in 1998-99. More than 100 countries have recognized Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, which came only after a decade of failed negotiations with Serbia.

Once the Crimean referendum is done, Russian president Vladimir Putin will face two primary choices. The Russian parliament has begun considering legislation to simplify how a foreign territory can join Russia. Putin could simply annex Crimea, which would be popular with many in his conservative base.

That would come with costs. Russia’s neighbors would become more anxious. The West and others would regard it as a naked land grab, which should trigger more sanctions.

Putin’s alternative would be to let Crimea hang in a kind of limbo of undefined status, much like Transnistria, which broke away from Moldova in the early 1990s. That could leave alive a thin glimmer of hope that Ukraine might some day recover Crimea (if Russia annexes it, it’s never going back). But the near-term prospects of recovery would be zero.

Moscow presumably will discard a third option, to recognize Crimea as an independent state. It proved diplomatically embarrassing when the Russians declared South Ossetia and Abkhazia independent following the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict. Only Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu recognized the two statelets, and Vanuatu later withdrew its recognition. Crimea could hardly expect to fare better.

Some suggest the Ukrainian government should accept the loss of Crimea as a fact beyond its ability to reverse. It could then focus on the rest of the country, which poses plenty of political and economic challenges. Having taken Crimea, or at least pried it away from Ukraine, Russia perhaps would be content.

Moscow, however, likely will not be content as long as Ukraine desires to draw closer to the European Union—and Russia’s seizure of Crimea will only fan that desire. Kyiv will not accept the referendum or, should it come to that, Russia’s annexation of the peninsula. Doing so would not end the broader dispute with Moscow but would set a dangerous precedent that the Russians might be tempted to apply elsewhere, such as in eastern Ukraine, where ethnic Russians constitute a significant share of the population—though not a majority—and where there have been some pro-Russia demonstrations.

As for the West, some will suggest accepting Crimea’s new status. They will argue that the West cannot reverse the situation without military action, and the United States and Europe plainly are not prepared to go to war over Crimea.

But Western acceptance of Russia’s aggression and the Crimean referendum’s results would prove a mistake. It would weaken key rules—such as respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity—that have governed post-Cold War Europe. It would fuel worries in countries with sizable ethnic Russian populations, including NATO allies such as Latvia and Estonia. And it would not resolve the longer-term tensions between Moscow and a Ukrainian state that sees a better future for itself with Europe.

The United States and European Union should support Ukraine’s territorial integrity, as they are committed to do as members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In addition to imposing penalties on Russia—including more severe sanctions should Moscow proceed to annex Crimea—Western countries should refuse to deal with Crimean officials, bar investment by Western companies there, and allow Ukraine to exercise a measure of border control by making ship port calls and international airline service subject to approval by Kyiv.

Such policies will not have an impact immediately and may not succeed in restoring Crimea’s status. But they are the right thing to do. The West needs to prepare a patient and persistent campaign that makes clear that unilateral attempts to redraw Europe’s borders will have consequences.