The Crimea 'Referendum': Russia Revealed

It’s shocking how quickly Russia has been revealed before the eyes of the world by its actions in Ukraine as a neo-Soviet dictatorship ruled by a pathologically violent and dishonest maniac.  And it’s equally shocking to see how slowly, despite their recent history with dictators, the NATO allies have moved to confront this horrifying reality, reminding one inevitably of European dithering during the rise of the Nazis.

On March 4, 2014, Russian “president” Vladimir Putin appeared at a news conference.  A journalist asked him: “How do you see the future of Crimea?  Do you consider the possibility of it joining Russia?”  Putin’s answer was unequivocal:  “No, we do not.”  This is not a report of the exchange from some media source that might be biased against Russia, it is taken directly from the Kremlin’s own website.

Two weeks later, on March 18, 2014, Putin staged a “referendum” in Crimea.  While hundreds of Russian soldiers looked on, pointing guns, and with a ballot that gave no alternative of staying in Ukraine, Crimeans were asked whether they wanted to join Russia.  When the “votes” were tallied, more than 95% of them supported joining Russia.  Within hours, Putin annexed it.

So once again, Putin lied, and then he used brutish Soviet tactics to take what he wanted by force, even as he vociferously decried the use of military force by the USA in places like Syria and Iran.  It’s fine, in other words, for Putin to use military force rather than diplomacy to grab territory from neighbors, but it is unacceptable for the USA to use force to inhibit the development of nuclear weapons in nations committed to its destruction.

Putin’s argument is that Crimea has a large ethnic Russian population that he needs to move in to protect.  Well, Latvia, Estonia, and Kazakhstan all have ethnic Russian populations above 20%, all higher than the 17% present in Ukraine.  Is Putin declaring that he can annex all or part of any of these nations as well?  Even if he says he has no such plans, that is exactly what he said two weeks ago about Crimea.

Kazakhstan has good reason for concern: no sooner had Putin’s axe come down on Crimea than local authorities had already begun discussing a pogrom against the peninsula’s ethnic Tatar population, which was also viciously persecuted in Soviet times.  Kazakhstan has even more racial minority groups that would find disfavor with Putin’s Slavic hordes.

Where are we when the word of the leader of a G-8 country isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on?

The consequences for Russia from Putin’s shameless dishonesty have been swift and brutal.  Credit agencies like S&P and Fitch have started mauling Russia’s credit rating.  Major financial institutions like Visa and Mastercard are severing their ties with Russia.  The ruble and the Russian stock market have taken massive hits in value, forcing Russia to burn through billions in precious reserves to support them at time when the economy was already flirting with recession.  Putin’s power is based on his claim to have stabilized the Russian economy, so events like these are devastating.

In the single most ominous foreign policy event of Putin’s career, Europe has begun talking seriously about how to break its energy ties to Russia.  A Moscow banker told the Telegraph
“Until yesterday people thought there would two months of shouting and then we get back to business, but nobody is quite sure anymore. What’s worrying the markets is that there will be more US sanctions. Russian companies are extremely vulnerable. The real fragility is whether they can roll over their debts.”

Ukraine signed an agreement with Europe, the rejection of which by Victor Yanukovich gave rise to the revolution against him.  The agreement calls for the “gradual convergence between the EU and the Ukraine in the areas of foreign and security policy, including the Common Security and Defence Policy.”  What this means is quite simple: Putin has lost the Ukrainians.

And at the same time, years of public relations efforts designed to make Russia appear to be a statesman-like alternative to U.S. hegemony, a country interested in diplomacy where Americans pursue brute force, have been set ablaze.  Now, all around the world, when Putin is not being called mentally ill, he’s being compared to Hitler or a mafia kingpin.  The USA hasn’t just regained the moral high ground; it has built a shining citadel there.  Not even China stands with Russia on Crimea, just as it repudiated Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008.

Perhaps most devastating for Russia, though, is the precedent Putin has set in Ukraine.  Already some are beginning to ask questions like “If Russia Gets Crimea, Should Germany Get Kaliningrad?”  Russia is rife with regions roiling with separatist fervor or populated by large groups who are not ethnically Russian, from isolated Kaliningrad to Siberia, over which looms China.  Does Russia really want the world asking such questions?

Yet Putin does not seem to care about the suffering he has brought to his people or the damage he has done to his own reputation and legacy – no more than the leaders of the USSR ever cared about such factors.  Instead, his mind seems to be filled with grandiose notions of rebuilding the Soviet state and restarting the Cold War with the USA, whose values he despises.  Just as in Soviet times, he would rather see his country collapse if it cannot dominate the globe and impose its warped, malignant values system.

Still, it’s getting hot in Putin’s kitchen.  The U.S. government is finally beginning to shed some light on Putin’s personal corruption, sniffing out his hidden assets and threatening to impede them.  It has already imposed a first round of sanctions on some of the closest members of Putin’s inner circle and is warning that there is more to come.  Whether Putin will be willing to watch an international noose tighten around his own wallet remains to be seen.  For sure, his reputation can’t survive an international feeding frenzy, focusing on his personal loot, that will shatter the last vestige of his statesman persona.

However, rational thought, even financial self-preservation, may be too much to hope for now.  Something I’ve always found remarkable about him is his schizophrenia where the USA is concerned.  Half of the time, Putin acts as if he thinks the U.S. is a military juggernaut run amok, and he spends hours berating it before the world for aggressive unilateral violence.  But the other half of the time, Putin acts as if the thinks the U.S. is a paper tiger, all roar and no rip.  How else could he think he might get away with imperialist aggression in Ukraine?

The USA can’t be both bloodthirsty and impotent, yet Putin makes policy for Russia as if it were.  Such behavior really does make one think Putin could be psychologically unhinged, out of touch with reality, in his own world, much as his Soviet ancestors always seemed to be.  And Putin is just as disturbingly schizo when it comes to his view of Russia, which at one moment is a powerful and intimidating force of nature and the next a helpless victim of bullies.

Yet despite all of Putin’s faults, the incompetence and cowardice of the American president means that Putin still has a trump card to play.  Ukraine has not been armed, nor has NATO taken any steps to support its security against further Russian incursions.  Plans have not yet been made to wean Europe off Russian gas, the nation’s lifeblood, nor have steps been taken to ward off Russian aggression against other states in post-Soviet space.  Even Obama’s rhetoric has been relatively mild and uninspiring, giving rise to an acidly mocking piece recently in The Onion.

Whether Obama can ultimately bestir himself to act like an American on Ukraine remains to be seen.  Though moving at a glacial pace, there have been some signs that he ultimately may do so.  On the other hand, it’s possible that he’ll move so slowly that his chance will simply evaporate, along with his presidency.

Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.