Skip to main content

The clock is ticking: Only days to solve Crimea crisis

By Daniel Treisman
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 1406 GMT (2206 HKT)
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
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
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
ADVERTISEMENT