As Crimea holds an election reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s phony plebiscites, Julia Ioffe predicts that it is all a precursor for a Russian invasion of Ukraine proper, and an annexation of its eastern half. Whether that happens or not, the Washington Post editorial board is calling for a second Cold War to contain and weaken Vladimir Putin’s regime:

After an orchestrated “referendum” on Sunday, Mr. Putin may leave the region — and Ukraine — in limbo for an extended time. Alternatively, he might move swiftly to annex the territory, breaking one of postwar Europe’s strongest taboos. He could even carry out the invasion of eastern Ukraine threatened by Russian troop maneuvers; on Saturday, Russian troops were reported to have seized a Ukrainian gas-pumping station and village outside Crimea.

Whatever his course, the United States and the European Union should quickly and forcefully bolster the Ukrainian government and assist it in carrying out economic reforms and democratic elections. But the West must also embrace the goals of punishing and, over time, weakening Mr. Putin’s regime.

The Post‘s rhetoric has already toughened:

Russia is ruled by a mafia. If the dons are left untouched, Western sanctions will have little effect.

They are willing to allow a complete deterioration of East/West relations in the interests of containment:

Western strategy must also fulfill the warning issued by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said the invasion would “cause massive damage to Russia, economically and politically.” That means, at a minimum, excluding Moscow from the Group of Eight and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which it is seeking to join. It also requires expanding sanctions from individuals to sectors — starting with the Russian banking system, which should be cut off from U.S. and European markets. Russia will respond with sanctions of its own, including against Western companies in Russia. Governments must be prepared to discount that damage, knowing that the economic cost to Russia — including from its own sanctions — will be far greater.

The most important piece of the Western response will be staying power. The policy probably won’t bring quick results, other than Russian retaliation. Mr. Putin may respond with more aggression. He may seek an early “normalization” of relations, dangling as a lure Moscow’s supposed influence over Iran and Syria or its facilitation of shipping to Afghanistan. The Obama administration should not abandon its work with Russia in these areas, but it also cannot temper its reaction to the situation in Crimea on behalf of other interests. If Mr. Putin threatens to suspend cooperation, the response should be to call his bluff.

Mr. Putin probably believes that, as after his invasion of Georgia, his relations with the United States and its allies will be “reset” — sooner rather than later. The future of Ukraine and of global security depends on proving him wrong.

It’s easy to express this degree of swagger from the comfort of your armchair, but we have troops in Afghanistan that need to be resupplied, and we have interests in Iran and Syria that can be severely undermined with potentially brutal consequences. If Putin tries to annex more of Ukraine, we may have little alternative to this hard line, but we don’t need to react precipitously.

It’s really up to Europe to decide whether or not they are willing to endure hardship on the behalf of Ukraine. We can’t take a tougher line than they are willing to adopt. It’s important to make a strong effort to dissuade Putin from further expansionary aggression, but it’s also important not to make threats that we cannot make good on. We shouldn’t take on a second Cold War lightly or without consensus.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at