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 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT