Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.
(CNN) -- The spectacle of Russia swallowing pieces of a neighboring country while claiming to defend its people would make George Orwell grimace with recognition. This weekend's charade, a "referendum" in which we're told more than 96% voted to join Russia, fits perfectly with the Orwellian narrative.
In this twilight zone of make-believe, Russian troops invade after removing the insignias from their uniforms and Putin explains, "You can go to a store and buy a uniform," claiming they are local "self-defense forces." Maybe Crimean shops also sell machine guns and armored personnel carriers. In this world of double-speak and misinformation, Moscow is manipulating the message, intimidating, twisting facts and lying -- the more absurd the propaganda the better.
My personal favorite is the branding of Crimea's independence push as the "Russian Spring." The most famous independence "spring" was the 1968 "Prague Spring," a push to expand freedoms in Czechoslovakia that was crushed by Soviet tanks. On second thought, maybe Ukrainians should embrace irony and call this charade a Russian Spring.
Do not believe those who say the result is fair or an accurate reflection of the popular will.
Sure, the Russian speakers in Crimea are intoxicated with Russian nationalism right now. So are millions in the motherland, who have heard the persistent false claims about grave threats, even warning of genocide against Russia's "brothers" in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. The more you hear about threats to ethnic Russians, the closer Putin is getting to launching an expanded invasion.
Look for claims of "requests for protection" from Moscow. After all, how can Moscow not help. And ignore the Russian agents sowing unrest. The unrest is the required pretext. Russia will come and "pacify." This tactic was not invented by Putin; it left a fetid track in the history of European empire-building, ethnic cleansing and warfare.
Before the propaganda campaign, a poll reported in The Washington Post found a majority of Crimeans were not exactly yearning to join Russia. More than half said their homeland was Crimea, and 35% said Ukraine. About 12 % of Crimeans are Muslim Tatars who despise Russia. About one-quarter are ethnic Ukrainians. You can bet they feel absolutely no affection for Russia today.
The referendum process was a travesty. Thousands of invading soldiers, no campaigning to hear differing views, no choice on the ballot for the status quo, intimidation of opponents, and a lightning-fast schedule after the local government is overthrown under the watch of armed men in unmarked camouflage fatigues. Democracy? You tell me.
The referendum was not just a violation of democratic norms and Ukrainian law, it was a clear violation of international law.
A Kremlin statement said Putin told U.S. President Barack Obama that Crimean independence echoes the "Kosovo experience." He may come to regret bringing up the former Yugoslavia, which unraveled in an orgy of ethnic and nationalism-driven bloodshed in the 1990s.
No country annexed Kosovo, and that experience has little in common with Crimea. No one has accused the new Ukrainian government of persecuting Crimea's Russians the way Serbian forces ever did.
The new Ukrainian government does contain an element of extreme right-wingers, who should be isolated and removed. The large mainstream of Ukraine's government, including its prime minister, is moderate, liberal, democratic and peaceful.
Moscow's false narrative that fascists control Kiev is a ploy, a pretext.
Already Putin has reserved the right to "defend" Russians in other parts of Ukraine. So-called self-defense forces captured a gas terminal close to Crimea, just inside Ukraine.
What comes next -- and what should the West do?
There are clear signs that Putin has designs on eastern Ukraine. He may not have decided yet. And what if he orders an invasion there? What if he goes for the rest of Ukraine? After all, Russia has close ties to Crimea, but it also has strong emotional ties to Kiev. And then? Many neighboring republics are getting nervous. Their history books are replete with stories of conquest. Would Moscow dare? We just don't know.
NATO will not go to war against Russia over Ukraine. Putin knows that.
The West should set up a dual track response. First, help the new Ukraine succeed. Ukrainian prosperity, democracy, anti-corruption reform, everything the Ukrainians say they want. Many in Russia want it too.
At the same time, impose sanctions and set up trip wires -- escalating sanctions that will go into effect if Russia makes more military moves. If Moscow makes a move to seize more of Ukraine, tell the Republic of Georgia, which yearns to join NATO and already lost territory to a similar Russian move, that its request will go on an approval track.
The U.S. and Europe need to work together and speak with one voice. Obama is traveling to Europe in the next few days. Meetings with NATO allies should produce more than statements. They should produce more than threats. Real sanctions will make Putin rethink his next move, especially if they affect his oligarch friends, who enjoy homes in London and ski trips in the Alps.
Sanctions require full European participation. Much has been made of Europe's need for Russian natural gas. But gas sales are a double-edged sword. Russia needs its European customers. America's newfound gas riches could help Europe gain independence from Moscow.
The long-term goal is to convince Russia that the use of force is counterproductive, that the costs outweigh the benefits. Ukraine will always be Russia's neighbor. One country's prosperity will benefit the other.
For now, however, Putin views Ukraine's dash for an independent, pro-Western future as a challenge to his worldview; to his goal of a Eurasian future dominated by Moscow. He has shown he is prepared to use force.
He has also shown that he wants a veneer of legitimacy for his actions. That's why he is taking the trouble of placing Orwellian labels and going through faux-democratic moves. If Putin believes each region should have the right to choose in what country it belongs, he has just smashed a hornet's nest.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.