By Katherine Earle
In the wake of Crimea’s decision to join the Russian Federation in Sunday’s referendum, it’s about time the U.S. and the West stop clinging to false hope for a diplomatic solution with Russia over Ukraine. The first misguided attempt to provide Russian president Vladimir Putin with an “off-ramp” by volunteering international observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to protect the rights of the Russian-speaking population in Crimea failed. The OSCE observers were prevented from entering the Ukrainian peninsula, not once, not twice, but four times. By whom? Certainly not Russian forces because, according to Putin, there weren’t any in Crimea.
This was complete nonsense. Numerous Russian soldiers in Crimea have given up their identity to reporters on the ground. However, the likes of Russian Foreign Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia Today, an English-language news channel that “reports” pro-Kremlin propaganda, have maintained that these “self-defense squads” were not in fact controlled by Russia, but had mobilized on their own to defend Crimea from the pro-Western “fascists” in Kiev. Putin has mastered the art of painting any and all opposition to friendly authoritarian regimes as paid-off American puppets looking to advance US interests under the guise of democracy. The crème de la crème of the Kremlin’s propaganda war – Putin is trumpeted as the only one who can stand up to the US and effectively guarantee the sovereignty of Moscow’s allies, most recently in Syrian, and now in Ukraine.
While the U.S. and Europe looked to give Russia a graceful way out of the crisis, pro-Russia billboards were erected through Crimea. One depicted the Crimean people’s choice as one between fascism and Russia and another read, “STOP, fascists won’t pass, let’s all go to the referendum.” The propaganda and misinformation campaign didn’t stop there. Crimea replaced Ukrainian TV channels with broadcasting straight from Moscow. And, to add to the chaos, Russia reportedly bused in many of its own citizens to eastern Ukrainian cities to join the pro-Russia protests. Simply put, the West could not have expected to negotiate with a regime so willing to distort reality and with a president determined to make the fog of war even murkier.
Threatening to isolate Russia from the international legal system (or “21st century” politics as John Kerry would say) isn’t enough. Case and point: on the day before the referendum in Crimea, Russia vetoed a Western-backed UN Security Council resolution that would have rendered Sunday’s vote null and void. China chose to abstain. Did calling international attention to Russia’s intransigence prove anything? Nope. On the same day as the UNSC vote, Russian troops entered the Kherson region of southern Ukraine under the pretext of defending a gas line that serves Crimea.
Crimea’s decision to join Russia was a forgone conclusion after a pro-Western government came to power in Kiev, which is part of Putin’s perceived sphere of influence. The referendum was never going to be negotiated away. The Putin regime has framed the Ukrainian crisis from the get-go as part of a greater contest between the West and Russia, in which Crimea is just the latest battleground. So what can the West do? Economic, rather than diplomatic, isolation for starters, followed by military assistance to Ukraine that is more substantial than food rations. Kiev has requested communication gear, intelligence support, aviation fuel and night vision goggles, why not start there?