Until this week, Americans following the disturbing developments in Ukraine would surely have said they’d prefer that the Crimean people vote against aligning themselves with Moscow.
Unfortunately, they’d also have to acknowledge that there’s little reason to believe that Vladimir Putin will lose this battle and many reasons to predict he’ll prevail (and that eventually he may also have his way with the rest of Ukraine).
If, as scheduled, they go to the polls Sunday to decide Crimea’s future, the region’s voters will be given just two choices: Join Russia immediately or declare independence and join Russia later. Any genuine referendum — that is, one that doesn’t have Putin’s fingerprints all over it — would offer at least a third choice: Maintain the status quo, which would mean keeping Crimea a part of Ukraine.
But even if that all-too-slight nod to genuine democracy were to be offered, the inescapable truth is that Crimea was long a part of Russia, and that’s why a majority of the Crimean people speak Russian, have a culture that is similar to Russia’s, and presumably would rather look to Moscow than to a very unstable (and, especially right now, unpredictable) Kiev for their political leadership.
However, Ukraine’s new Parliament on Tuesday gave the regional assembly in Crimea until today to cancel the referendum and warned that it faces dissolution unless it does so. It’s not clear how the assembly will respond, but the voting seems likely to take place.
Also Tuesday, Oleksandr Turchynov, the acting Ukrainian president, said a new national guard will be created to respond to Russia’s attempts to annex Crimea. He said mismanagement of the Ukrainian armed forces under his predecessor meant they had to be rebuilt “effectively from scratch.”
Ukraine reportedly has only 6,000 combat-ready infantry to counter the more than 200,000 Russian troops stationed on its eastern borders.
Meanwhile, any hopes of a diplomatic solution to the crisis dimmed when Secretary of State John Kerry canceled a visit to Moscow to discuss the crisis.
The pro-Moscow Crimean assembly has already voted to leave Ukraine, no doubt reflecting the will of the majority and certainly disregarding the wishes of the new government trying so hard to stabilize Europe’s largest country.
The secession vote is bad news for the Crimean minority, especially the long-suffering Tatars, a Muslim population that endured years of persecution under previous regimes.
Although Americans may not be happy about this, they’ve had little choice but to accept the logic that drives the inevitable Crimea-is-Russian conclusion of the drama. After all, neither the United States nor the European Union has much leverage on that issue. The military option, which some in Washington would like to see given greater consideration, seems out of the question.
But if the return of Crimea to Moscow’s domination is inevitable, the behavior of the Russian troops occupying that disputed territory — and the way some of their sympathizers are behaving — can only enrage anyone who believes in democracy.
That behavior includes this week’s seizure of two Ukrainian journalists. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based organization dedicated to preventing abuse of journalists who are merely doing their jobs, described the situation in Crimea as a “black hole for news” and laid the blame strictly on “the forces controlling the Crimea.”
Christophe Deloire, secretary general of the organization, cited “the frequency of deliberate attacks on journalists and the scale of the censorship” imposed by the region’s pro-Russian officials.
Those whose heroic protests brought change to Ukraine had no idea the changes would so soon be so ugly.
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