Newly announced U.S. sanctions against members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle might not be enough to thwart the Kremlin's move to gain control of Crimea, experts told TheBlaze, but there is one option that could force Russia to take notice.
After a credulity-stretching 97 percent of Crimea was said to have voted Sunday for a Moscow-backed referendum to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia, it's time for widespread international pressure, said Vitaly Chernetsky, a Ukraine expert and Slavic language professor at the University of Kansas.
"The question is how much the current Russian leadership is willing to risk" and "how far the international community is willing to go to impose the strictest sanctions," Chernetsky told TheBlaze.
Ukrainian troops with white bands on their sleeves march past an unmarked Russian military vehicle outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalne, Crimea, Ukraine, Monday, March 17, 2014. Crimea held a referendum Sunday, in which an overwhelming majority voted for breaking off from Ukraine and joining Russia. (AP/Andrei Udovichenko)
He said the astonishingly high referendum tally "shows that it was a fraudulent vote" — one that conducted under duress, with Crimea occupied by more than 22,000 Russian troops.
"It was fairly clear that Crimea would happen the way it did," Chernetsky said. "The one thing to bear in mind is whatever official statistics that are coming from Crimea, they cannot at all be independently verified because no independent observers of any kind were allowed to participate, even journalists both domestic and foreign were kicked out. So this might as well have been the referendum with no one showing up because the results were predetermined in advance. The question is what's going to happen next and this is indeed very, very worrisome."
[sharequote align="center"]"This might as well have been the referendum with no one showing up." [/sharequote]
But not even the experts agree on what should be done. On Monday, White House officials and State Department announced a number of sanctions against Russia. The State Department made it clear that the United States does not recognize the Crimean referendum, which is seen as a land grab by Moscow to take control of its former satellite. Since the Ukraine uprisings in November -- when ousted President Viktor Yanukovych reversed course and failed to sign an economic agreement with the European Union, but instead chose to accept a $15 billion loan from Russia -- the Ukrainian people are once again feeling the force of the former motherland. Ukraine gained its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1994, the former satellite state, then with the third-largest nuclear stockpile, signed the Budapest Accord with the United States, Russia and Great Britain to dismantle its weapons and in return, to receive the protection of the signatories.
A number of senior analysts said sanctions alone on Russia's wealthiest oligarchs or politicians may not be enough to stop Putin. Chernetsky and others who have spoken with TheBlaze suggested the United States and the European Union look at reversing the Montreux Convention of 1936, signed by Turkey, Great Britain and the former Soviet Union, among others, and recognized by the U.S.
"The United States and Europe should send a strong signal in the form of sanctions that Russia is violating treaties and not behaving as a responsible member of the international community," Cherntsky added. "The [Montreux Convention] could indeed be a powerful lever of pressure. I think the worry on the Turkish side might be of course is that Istanbul is Turkey's industrial intellectual center and if there is a Russian attack on Istanbul the consequence of this, might create a very major repercussions."
If the international community could get Turkey, a part of NATO, to break the treaty that currently exempts Black Sea nations, including Russia, from military restrictions imposed in the Bosporus Straits leading into the Black Sea and the Dardanelles Strait leading into the Aegean Sea, then "Russia will feel the impact of the sanctions when her ship movements are limited, and the straits could fall under NATO protection," Cherntsky said.
One U.S. official familiar with the situation told TheBlaze that this should "reveal to many how important Turkey still is as an ally of the United States and Europe" and could hold the key to the strongest sanction yet to be discussed against Russia in the Montreux agreement.
"There is no doubt that Putin is unpredictable and the situation is being monitored closely but Putin's economic situation is fragile and strong sanctions might work to stop him," the official said.
William Wilson, an economist and a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, also warned that sanctions would need to be strong enough to make Putin "feel it in his gut."
Wilson said that Putin and those who support him in Moscow were willing to take action against Ukraine despite threats of sanctions from the West because they view President Barack Obama as a weak president and don't fear the sanctions they are being threatened with. He said that sanctions strong enough to shut Putin down need to be imposed before the situation escalates into something worse, because "Russians only understand one thing – they only understand and respect force."
"You’re only going to get Putin’s attention if you impose sanctions much stronger than he expected," said Wilson, who just returned from a two-year stint in Russia. "He’s not expecting much – he’s relaxed. He’s not expecting sanctions – only travel bans."
Putin is expected to address the Crimea referendum on Tuesday in a special joint session of the Russian State Duma. The Russian parliament is expected to make a decisions on the annexation of the region, according to news reports.
Programming note: For The Record, TheBlaze’s investigative newsmagazine show, will speak with sources from within Ukraine during a special focused on the unfolding events surrounding Crimea. What you don’t know about the crisis in Ukraine but should — the outcome could change the world. This Wednesday, March 19 at 8 p.m. ET, only on TheBlaze TV.