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Opinion: Russia risks isolation

The Crimea referendum will lead to Russia's international isolation, while the annexation of Crimea will lead the country into a confrontation with the West it can hardly benefit from, argues DW's Ingo Mannteufel.

Ingo Mannteufel (Photo: DW/Per Henriksen )

Ingo Mannteufel heads DW's Russian service

Just by holding a referendum in Crimea, the Kremlin has risked a further escalation of events in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the result - one of overwhelming support for secession from Ukraine - is not that important. And that isn't just because of the doubts this referendum has raised in terms of constitutional and international law: after all, in holding the ballot, Russia is disregarding the Ukrainian constitution and contravening several international treaties.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions in Crimea are putting Russia on its way towards a state of international isolation the country will have difficulty getting out of. Not even China has backed the Kremlin's aggressive Ukraine policies. The only support the Kremlin has received over Crimea is from Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria and from international pariah state North Korea.

Illegitimate and unfree vote

Another important political factor is that the referendum is hardly a free expression of the will of the Crimean people. It is neither legal, independent, nor is it free. Instead, the referendum, which was announced at extremely short notice and was not preceded by any real political discussion, is being conducted under the watchful eye of armed Russian troops and the Crimean "self-defense units" allied with them.

The whole referendum is following a well-known blueprint that was used by Stalin in occupied eastern and central Europe during and after World War II: groups loyal to the Kremlin collaborate with Moscow's military power to stage a show vote accompanied by propaganda in order to give the Kremlin's policy of expansionism some legitimacy. No one will take the outcome of this vote seriously.

Perhaps Putin had hoped the West would let him get away with this aggressive and illegal policy amidst the chaos of post-Yanukovych Ukraine. He may have anticipated less criticism from the West. And he might still believe that the current storm of political indignation will calm down again or that the West will shy away from sanctions. After all, the false notion that the West is dependent on Russia for its energy supplies has been circulating in Russian public discourse for years.

High stakes

But Putin has clearly miscalculated. And what is worse, the Kremlin leadership still hasn't realized that they have gone too far, and that they are heading towards serious confrontation with the West - a confrontation that, in the medium term, Russia will lose out in. Even now, the Russian economy is in a phase of stagnation. The devaluation of the ruble is already cutting into consumption and into the prosperity of the Russian population. A restriction of energy exports would be suicide by installments for Russia, as would the sale of Russian currency reserves that have been announced. Systematic economic sanctions by the West could leave their mark on Russia.

We can only hope that the situation won't get that far. But on Monday not only the US, but the European Union, too, will be reacting to the referendum with sanctions. Leading members of the Russian elite will face asset freezes and visa bans.

The political sanctions are likely to be the West's final attempt to push Moscow into compromise and into a political and diplomatic dialogue with leaders in Kyiv. But the Kremlin will probably reject such steps again, and begin enacting the formal integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation next week.

That would seal the deal on the annexation of Crimea from the Russian perspective. For the West, these actions will provide an occasion to think about further political and economic sanctions. And as this dangerous spiral of sanctions continues, an international isolation of Russia is inevitable.

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