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 3:14 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 5:48 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT