03/04/2014 07:28 pm ET Updated May 04, 2014

Crimean Punishment

Crimea 2014 is not Budapest 1956 or Prague 1968. As yet there are no tanks crushing hopes for democracy. Nor is this the Cuban missile crisis. But it might have been save for U.S. non-proliferation efforts that helped remove nuclear weapons from Ukraine and other Soviet Republics as the Soviet Union collapsed. The horror of that avoided nuclear nightmare should spur renewed non-proliferation efforts elsewhere.

What we do have is a serious two pronged crisis precipitated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The first and most immediate issue is the takeover of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. The second is the future of Ukraine after that ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych and the establishment of a new government in Kiev.

Crimea was a part of the Russian Socialist Republic until 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev appended it to Ukraine to assure a Russian majority in that rebellious republic. If any of Khrushchev's successors had imagined the breakup of the Soviet Union, Crimea, the home of the Black Sea Fleet would surely have reverted to Russian Control long ago. On the other hand, largely ethnic and linguistically Russian Crimea is connected to the Ukraine mainland by the narrow Isthmus of Perekop through which the majority of Crimea's water and electricity is supplied.

After forcibly but so far bloodlessly seizing key buildings, choke points and the airports, Russian troops, often in uniforms without insignia now exercise effective control of the peninsula. The strategy appears to be to split Crimea from Ukraine perhaps by a referendum to validate Crimean "independence." Few outside of Russia's firm grasp would recognize the legitimacy of such a move, even though Crimea has a semi-autonomous status in Ukraine and there were some voices calling for such a vote before the Russian takeover.

A referendum could offer a face saving exit from the crisis, if Putin is seeking one. But such an election must be preceded by the return of Russian troops to their basis and the presence of independent mediators and election monitors. All near term efforts such as suspending G-8 preparations and sanctions should be focused on this result. And longer term costs should be the price of not meeting these conditions.

On the larger issue, Ukraine's geography has determined that it is destined to be a buffer zone or a battleground between Russia and the West, much like Laos caught between Vietnam and Thailand in Southeast Asia. Let us deal with reality and spare the morality. Ousted President Viktor Yanukovych was elected in what was generally regarded as an honest election. He was corrupt and perhaps guilty of crimes against humanity if he ordered the firing on peaceful protesters. But he was ousted by a mob. Are we going to condone ousting legitimately elected leaders because in incompetence or corruption as we did here and also in Egypt? If this is a new democratic standard, the U.S. Congress should beware.

Also realistically, Yanukovych can only be restored to power by Russian troops. And the interim government in Kiev has far too narrow a base to survive. It needs to be broadened, including representatives of Yanukovych's Regent party, especially if the reforms the IMF is likely to demand are to be implemented. And ultra-nationalist forces reminiscent of WWII must be contained. So the first priority here is to calm the situation, prevent any violence that would propel Ukraine down the Syria path and provide stability. Ukraine's economy is in dire straits. Oligarchs and their Russian cousins control eighty percent. The EU and the IMF should take a hard look at whether the country is ready to be helped. Putin does not need to invade to have a major influence in Ukraine -- rubles and natural gas will protect his interests. Again, if Putin is seeking a compromise and not a triumph, there is maneuver room. Ukraine could give guarantees on the status of the Black Sea Fleet and pledge not to seek NATO membership. And Russia could reaffirm its natural gas deal and support for Ukraine's sovereignty.

The strategic dilemma for the West is to determine if Putin's actions and reactions are limited to Ukraine. There is a case to be made that this is a cynical second move (Georgia being the first) to reestablish Russian borders closer to those of the former Soviet Union. If the latter is the case, the Baltic States will be next in his sights. Poland and the Baltic states, all NATO members along with the former Soviet satellites in Central Europe need to be the focus of the NATO summit in September. By then the ambitions of Putin should have come into focus.

And the crisis should focus on renewed non-proliferation efforts.