Putin's land grab [Editorial]

Russia's annexation of Crimea today came despite U.S. and European threats to impose economic sanctions if President Vladimir Putin moved to take back the former Russian province that was ceded to Ukraine decades ago. Mr. Putin evidently calculated he could defy those warnings. Now President Barack Obama has little choice but to make good on his vow to punish Moscow, though there may not be much the U.S. or its allies can do in the short run to roll back Russia's aggression.

Mr. Putin announced the annexation of Crimea in an emotional speech before the Russian Parliament filled with historical references to Ukraine as the birthplace of Russian national identity and a long list of grievances against the West, which he blamed for his country's loss of prestige and power in the world. Most of it was boiler-plate propaganda, but after he signed the accession document with a motley crew of Crimean officials hand-picked for the occasion, there was little doubt Russia's rubber-stamp parliament would leap to bestow its approval.


It's been barely three weeks since Mr. Putin's ally, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted from office in a popular uprising against his government's corruption and brutality against protesters in Kiev's Independence Square. Within days, heavily armed Russian Special Operations troops wearing uniforms without national insignia appeared on the streets of Simferopol, Crimea's provincial capital, and Sevastopol, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Pro-Russian provincial officials then announced a hastily called referendum to determine whether Crimea should become part of Russia using a ballot that made no provision for voters to choose to remain citizens of Ukraine.

Mr. Obama and European leaders pressed Mr. Putin not to go ahead with a patently fraudulent election conducted under the guns of an occupying army, but he ignored their demands. On Sunday, Crimea's mostly Russian-speaking population voted "overwhelmingly" to join Russia in a rigged election in which the number of ballots cast exceeded the total population of the province by several hundred thousand. Two days later, Mr. Putin formally annexed the province.


Mr. Putin boasted that he accomplished it virtually without firing a shot; instead he maneuvered forces in secret to capture strategic points while issuing a stream of propaganda and cyber attacks to keep officials in Kiev and the West guessing, off balance and unable to react before it was too late. The result is the gravest European security crisis since the end of the Cold War.

President Obama thus has been presented with what is effectively a fait accompli. There is no conceivable military option by the U.S. or NATO that is likely to force Mr. Putin to back down, and the economic and diplomatic measures the West could use to enforce its threat to isolate Russia would take a long time to make their effects felt in a way that might persuade Mr. Putin that the costs invading Crimea exceed its benefits. Until that calculus becomes clear to him, Crimea is likely to stay part of Russia for the foreseeable future despite Washington's pledge never to recognize the region's altered status.

It's important, however, for the West to keep up the pressure, not only to convince Mr. Putin that he is ultimately better off negotiating Crimea's status with the Ukrainian government but to deter him from attempting further territorial grabs in other former Soviet Republics and satellites.

Vice President Joseph Biden was in Warsaw yesterday to reassure countries threatened by Russia's incursion into Ukraine that the U.S. would support them, and Mr. Obama is rallying the European Union to issue additional sanctions against Mr. Putin's circle of political and business cronies who backed the Crimea takeover. The best way to prevent a repeat of what happened in Ukraine is for the West to present a united front that's sustainable over the long run and that convinces Mr. Putin he cannot violate international law with impunity.

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