Russia's high-speed annexation of Crimea

Russia’s annexation of Crimea happened fast.  The dodgy Crimean independence referendum, denounced as illegal by the “international community, took place over the weekend.  On Monday, Russian president Vladimir Putin thumbed his nose at the aforementioned “international community,” said it was too a legal referendum, laughed at the notion of sanctions, and signed a decree recognizing Crimean independence… which lasted less than 24 hours, as Tuesday morning saw Crimean leaders signing a treaty to make it part of Russia.

And to think there were international observers speculating that annexation might take weeks or months!  Try hours, ladies and gentlemen.  And then take two of those hours back, because the Crimeans announced they would be resetting their clocks to Moscow time on March 30, which will put them two hours ahead of Ukraine time.

European and American sanctions – leveled against just 21 and 7 individual Russian officials, respectively – did nothing to slow Putin down.  He’s still marching troops around on the Ukrainian border and playing footsie with Russian separatists in other parts of Ukraine.  For whatever it’s worth, he gave a TV address to the Russian people on Tuesday in which he said “we don’t want division of Ukraine,” insisting that grabbing Crimea didn’t count, because “in our hearts we know Crimea has always been an inalienable part of Russia.”

He even threw in a dig about how he expected Germany to support “reunification” between Russia and Crimea, the same way his country supported German reunification in the Nineties.  Since that hasn’t been the German attitude thus far – Chancellor Angela Merkel has been describing the Crimean situation as a crime Russia “will not get away with” – Putin sniffed that the West has “crossed a line” and behaved in an “unprofessional” manner.

Putin referred to the new Ukrainian government as “neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites” in his speech on Tuesday, to thunderous applause.  That doesn’t bode well for harmonious co-existence.  The Ukrainians have requested military assistance from the United States to checkmate Russia before it gobbles up more of the country, but thus far the strongest American response has been to reaffirm NATO ties to nervous Eastern partners like Poland.  In fact, Vice President Joe Biden is in Warsaw today, offering reassurances that NATO will honor its commitment to defend them.

But then again, papers were signed in the Clinton era obliging the United States, United Kingdom, and Russian Federation to respect the independence, sovereignty, and borders of Ukraine, as part of the process that led to Ukraine surrendering the nuclear weapons that would have kept Putin at bay.  That agreement doesn’t seem to be counting for much, but it was written on much thinner paper than the NATO charter.  A vigorous argument is currently under way as to whether the 1994 Budapest Memorandum would require the US and UK to offer a military defense of Ukraine.  Spoiler: it won’t.

One other little comment of Putin’s that has everyone on edge was his insistence, as transcribed by Reuters, that “Russia has the right to defend, by military force if necessary, Russian citizens and Russian speakers living in former Soviet republics, raising concerns that Moscow may intervene elsewhere.”  It doesn’t seem like it would be very difficult to arrange the sort of incident that would justify such intervention.  The Ukrainians are already accusing Moscow of making such arrangements within, and beyond, Crimea.  In fact, just this morning Putin referred to Kiev as “the mother of all Russian cities,” and said it was important to protect ethnic Russians living there.

Announcing his sanctions against seven Russians on Monday, President Obama warned, “We’ll continue to make clear to Russia that further provocations will achieve nothing except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world.”  It should be interesting to hear him make that clear today.  As of 9:00 AM Eastern time, the White House still had not responded to Russia’s lightning-fast annexation of Crimea.