You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. He certainly knows how to engineer a land grab.
Twenty days ago mysterious unidentified armed men turned up in Crimea, took over the Crimean parliament building and border crossings and within a day had dropped the pretense that they were not Russian soldiers.
The Crimean parliament, installed by force, announced on March 6 it would hold a referendum March 16 on whether Crimea should remain part of Ukraine or break free.
Crimeans were treated to one-sided election propaganda charging that Ukraine had been seized by "Nazis." Thousands of Russian troops patrolled the streets. Opponents of separation kept a low profile. Ukrainian leaders were barred from Crimea.
In the end it is surprising that the separation vote on Sunday was supported by only 97 percent. Such methods usually yield unanimity. On Monday Crimea's parliament asked that the "republic" become a part of Russia.
Now Mr. Putin will not have to pay rent to Kiev for his naval base at Sevastopol.
The whole charade was, of course, thoroughly illegal under Ukrainian and international law. As Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague rightly said, it was also a "mockery of proper democratic practice."
From start to finish, it took no more than 19 days. Pretty good for what Russia describes as a simple reaction to unrest threatening Russian speakers in Ukraine. The role played by Russia in Ukraine's recent turmoil has a distinct air of premeditation about it.
The United States and the European Union reacted, as promised, with sanctions. But these so-called "targeted" sanctions will fall, not on the Russian economy or government, but on individuals who advocated or carried out President Putin's presumed orders. They include leaders of the Crimean secession, Russian lawmakers, advisers to President Putin, Ukraine's former president Viktor Yanukovich and three top Russian military commanders.
Putin aide Vladislav Surkov told Russian news media, "I consider the decision of the Washington administration as a recognition of my service to Russia."
Now the big worry is that Mr. Putin's appetite is not satisfied. Other Russian-speaking parts of the Ukraine, adjacent to the Russian border, contain coal, oil and natural gas. Any further dismemberment of Ukraine would raise already tense East-West relations to near boiling.
But it is not clear what the West will do besides shun Russia. On Monday President Barack Obama warned Moscow: "Further provocations will achieve nothing except to further isolate Russia and diminish its place in the world. The international community will continue to stand together to oppose any violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and continued Russia military intervention in Ukraine will only deepen Russia's diplomatic isolation and exact a greater toll on the Russia economy."
But the relatively mild sanctions applied for the blatant seizure of Crimea do not augur well for the strength of Mr. Obama's position or that of our European allies.
This time the West has blinked.
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