Skip to main content

Putin's Orwellian theft of Crimea

By Frida Ghitis
March 17, 2014 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
A woman leaves a voting booth in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Sunday, March 16. Polls opened Sunday morning in a referendum in Ukraine's Crimea region, in which voters are to voice their wish to either join Russia or become an effectively independent state connected to Ukraine. A woman leaves a voting booth in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Sunday, March 16. Polls opened Sunday morning in a referendum in Ukraine's Crimea region, in which voters are to voice their wish to either join Russia or become an effectively independent state connected to Ukraine.
HIDE CAPTION
Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Photos: Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Photos: Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Photos: Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Photos: Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Photos: Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Ukraine's Crimea region votes
Ukraine's Crimea region votes
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Putin's talk of "democracy" is double-speak and unfounded lies
  • Ghitis: The 96% vote to join Russia is far from an accurate reflection of the popular will
  • Ghitis: Putin's warnings about threats to ethic Russians hint at an expanded invasion
  • She says U.S., Europe must unite to convince Putin the costs of invasion are dear

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis.

(CNN) -- The spectacle of Russia swallowing pieces of a neighboring country while claiming to defend its people would make George Orwell grimace with recognition. This weekend's charade, a "referendum" in which we're told more than 96% voted to join Russia, fits perfectly with the Orwellian narrative.

In this twilight zone of make-believe, Russian troops invade after removing the insignias from their uniforms and Putin explains, "You can go to a store and buy a uniform," claiming they are local "self-defense forces." Maybe Crimean shops also sell machine guns and armored personnel carriers. In this world of double-speak and misinformation, Moscow is manipulating the message, intimidating, twisting facts and lying -- the more absurd the propaganda the better.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

My personal favorite is the branding of Crimea's independence push as the "Russian Spring." The most famous independence "spring" was the 1968 "Prague Spring," a push to expand freedoms in Czechoslovakia that was crushed by Soviet tanks. On second thought, maybe Ukrainians should embrace irony and call this charade a Russian Spring.

Do not believe those who say the result is fair or an accurate reflection of the popular will.

Sure, the Russian speakers in Crimea are intoxicated with Russian nationalism right now. So are millions in the motherland, who have heard the persistent false claims about grave threats, even warning of genocide against Russia's "brothers" in Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. The more you hear about threats to ethnic Russians, the closer Putin is getting to launching an expanded invasion.

Look for claims of "requests for protection" from Moscow. After all, how can Moscow not help. And ignore the Russian agents sowing unrest. The unrest is the required pretext. Russia will come and "pacify." This tactic was not invented by Putin; it left a fetid track in the history of European empire-building, ethnic cleansing and warfare.

Before the propaganda campaign, a poll reported in The Washington Post found a majority of Crimeans were not exactly yearning to join Russia. More than half said their homeland was Crimea, and 35% said Ukraine. About 12 % of Crimeans are Muslim Tatars who despise Russia. About one-quarter are ethnic Ukrainians. You can bet they feel absolutely no affection for Russia today.

The referendum process was a travesty. Thousands of invading soldiers, no campaigning to hear differing views, no choice on the ballot for the status quo, intimidation of opponents, and a lightning-fast schedule after the local government is overthrown under the watch of armed men in unmarked camouflage fatigues. Democracy? You tell me.

McCain: Russia a 'gas station'
Ukraine protests turn deadly
Ukraine analysis

The referendum was not just a violation of democratic norms and Ukrainian law, it was a clear violation of international law.

A Kremlin statement said Putin told U.S. President Barack Obama that Crimean independence echoes the "Kosovo experience." He may come to regret bringing up the former Yugoslavia, which unraveled in an orgy of ethnic and nationalism-driven bloodshed in the 1990s.

No country annexed Kosovo, and that experience has little in common with Crimea. No one has accused the new Ukrainian government of persecuting Crimea's Russians the way Serbian forces ever did.

The new Ukrainian government does contain an element of extreme right-wingers, who should be isolated and removed. The large mainstream of Ukraine's government, including its prime minister, is moderate, liberal, democratic and peaceful.

Moscow's false narrative that fascists control Kiev is a ploy, a pretext.

Already Putin has reserved the right to "defend" Russians in other parts of Ukraine. So-called self-defense forces captured a gas terminal close to Crimea, just inside Ukraine.

What comes next -- and what should the West do?

There are clear signs that Putin has designs on eastern Ukraine. He may not have decided yet. And what if he orders an invasion there? What if he goes for the rest of Ukraine? After all, Russia has close ties to Crimea, but it also has strong emotional ties to Kiev. And then? Many neighboring republics are getting nervous. Their history books are replete with stories of conquest. Would Moscow dare? We just don't know.

NATO will not go to war against Russia over Ukraine. Putin knows that.

The West should set up a dual track response. First, help the new Ukraine succeed. Ukrainian prosperity, democracy, anti-corruption reform, everything the Ukrainians say they want. Many in Russia want it too.

At the same time, impose sanctions and set up trip wires -- escalating sanctions that will go into effect if Russia makes more military moves. If Moscow makes a move to seize more of Ukraine, tell the Republic of Georgia, which yearns to join NATO and already lost territory to a similar Russian move, that its request will go on an approval track.

The U.S. and Europe need to work together and speak with one voice. Obama is traveling to Europe in the next few days. Meetings with NATO allies should produce more than statements. They should produce more than threats. Real sanctions will make Putin rethink his next move, especially if they affect his oligarch friends, who enjoy homes in London and ski trips in the Alps.

Sanctions require full European participation. Much has been made of Europe's need for Russian natural gas. But gas sales are a double-edged sword. Russia needs its European customers. America's newfound gas riches could help Europe gain independence from Moscow.

The long-term goal is to convince Russia that the use of force is counterproductive, that the costs outweigh the benefits. Ukraine will always be Russia's neighbor. One country's prosperity will benefit the other.

For now, however, Putin views Ukraine's dash for an independent, pro-Western future as a challenge to his worldview; to his goal of a Eurasian future dominated by Moscow. He has shown he is prepared to use force.

He has also shown that he wants a veneer of legitimacy for his actions. That's why he is taking the trouble of placing Orwellian labels and going through faux-democratic moves. If Putin believes each region should have the right to choose in what country it belongs, he has just smashed a hornet's nest.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT