Russian President Vladimir Putin chose a referendum on secession, attended by 15,000 menacing troops, as the means to pry Crimea away from Ukraine. This choice runs directly counter to his long-held beliefs about the need to maintain the integrity of his nation at all costs.
With the results in, it may seem that Putin has achieved exactly what he set out to do: restore Crimea to Russia after 60 years as part of Ukraine. But promoting the principle that secession can be legitimate on the basis of a single hastily-arranged plebiscite in the middle of a military occupation provides a precedent that may prove Putin’s ultimate undoing.
Until Putin annexed Crimea, secession was the dirtiest word in his playbook. He watched, appalled, as one after another former Soviet republic opted for independence from Russia. He has repeatedly punished those brave dissenters who dare advocate leaving the Russian federation.
By legitimizing secession, however, Putin has opened the door to all those nationalists, Chechens, Muslims and other minorities who believe their future prosperity and human rights are best served by detaching themselves from Russia’s centralizing grasp.
For a short term gain, Putin has inadvertently legitimized the right of minority communities to go their own ways with the help of a foreign government. When former Soviet republics like the Baltic republics escaped their Russian masters by voting to secede from the old Soviet bloc, the Western powers cheered that after 70 years of colonization, the people had chosen self-determination over satellite status.