Skip to main content

The clock is ticking: Only days to solve Crimea crisis

By Daniel Treisman
updated 9:06 AM EST, Sat March 8, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Daniel Treisman: Only a few days are left to stop the Crimea breakaway
  • He says if Crimea votes to rejoin Russia, that will greatly strengthen Putin's position
  • U.S. and EU need to apply economic pressure, make the case for a "no" vote, he says
  • Treisman: Crimea must see the choice is between prosperity and stagnation

Editor's note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of "The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev."

(CNN) -- President Putin's endgame in Crimea is now clear -- and the West has only a few days to act.

On Thursday, the Crimean parliament voted 78-0 to hold a referendum on March 16. The main question will ask whether voters want the region to secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia. Previously, a referendum had been scheduled for March 30 on the less politically charged question of whether Crimea should have greater autonomy within Ukraine.

If, as expected, a majority endorses secession, the story will change overnight from one about Russia's unprovoked military invasion to one about a minority's right to self-determination. That is the Kremlin's plan.

Daniel Treisman
Daniel Treisman

European leaders, already having trouble agreeing on a response to naked aggression, will find it much harder to oppose the popular will of the Crimean people. At that point, risky actions to force Crimea back into Ukraine will become difficult for Western politicians to explain to their own domestic voters.

The legal status of the planned referendum is more than murky. Ukrainian acting president Oleksandr Turchynov has called it a "farce" and a "crime against the nation." But, for democratic politicians -- and the societies they represent -- going against a majority vote is never easy.

If Russia can change the subject in this way, Crimean secession will become an established fact. Putin, who assured journalists on Tuesday that Russia did not mean to annex Crimea, will then be able to claim that he was "forced to yield to the will of the people."

A people who died but would not die out
'Best case Ukraine can hope for is ... '

With just a few days to turn the situation around, temporizing needs to stop. Allowing Russia "more time" at this point, as some European leaders have proposed, is exactly what the West should not do. That Russia's Crimean clients have moved the referendum date forward suggests nervousness in Moscow -- and a recognition that time is of the essence.

In the remaining time before March 16, the West must convince both the Kremlin-connected Russian elite and the population of Crimea that the region's secession to Russia would be a mistake. Direct threats are counterproductive, but clearly and calmly articulating the consequences of such a move can produce results.

First, all the European Union states plus the United States should make absolutely clear that they will not recognize the results of a referendum held while armed bands of "self-defense forces" roam Crimea. Any decision to secede that results from such a referendum will be considered illegitimate.

To increase Moscow's isolation, it is worth exploring whether a large majority would support a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly -- of course, Russia would veto in the Security Council -- reasserting the inviolability of borders in this case.

Second, the EU and U.S. should announce that economic relations would be frozen between the West and a Crimea in legal limbo following secession. In part, this freeze would be enforced by the markets themselves.

Crimea's tourism industry would have to forget about attracting Western visitors to the region's beaches. International investors would demand huge risk premiums. But Western restrictions on investment and trade with Crimea could amplify the effect. The region's agricultural produce could be banned from European and Ukrainian markets.

Crimeans must be helped to understand the choice they face: between becoming another Abkhazia -- a failed statelet on intravenous drip from Moscow -- or a flourishing region within the new, broader Europe. The EU should quickly earmark some portion of the 11 billion euros already promised to Ukraine for projects to develop Crimea's economy if it remains Ukrainian.

Third, the United States should work out a set of restrictions to place on Russian banks and corporations that do business in a Crimea that has illegally seceded. As economist Anders Aslund has pointed out, existing rules against money laundering could be enforced more rigorously against various Russian entities.

All of this needs to be done rapidly. While Washington has reacted quickly as the crisis unfolded, the EU has suffered from its chronic lack of central decision-making authority. The next few days constitute a test.

If Brussels cannot forge a strong, common position in time, then management of future crises will simply revert to the foreign ministries of Germany, France, and Britain, with the EU's foreign policy role narrowed to coordinating long-term policies.

While spelling out the costs that threaten the Crimean population and the Russian political elite, Western leaders must continue to devise "off-ramps" to outcomes that Putin could conceivably accept, but that, nevertheless, will not be seen as rewarding aggression.

The West can call for a significant increase in Crimea's political autonomy within Ukraine, negotiated with Kiev. U.S. and European leaders should also speak out far more audibly in favor of minority language and cultural rights. They should have responded with outrage when the Rada, Ukraine's parliament, canceled the status of Russian as an official language and should now praise the promised veto of this law.

It may still be possible to prevent the illegal annexation of Crimea. Putin is sensitive to the danger of splits within his political elite. The West must show him that he has underestimated the extent of political isolation and economic disruption that annexation would cause. It must work on winning the hearts and minds of the Crimean population. The clock is ticking.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Treisman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT