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Stabilizing Ukraine

MADRID – Even Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union with scarcely a shot fired, has proclaimed his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. The people of Crimea, he says, have corrected a historic Soviet error.

Gorbachev’s sentiment is widely shared in Russia. After the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, Russia went from superpower to backwater. Three ex-Soviet republics joined the European Union and NATO, asserting their desire not only for democracy and prosperity, but also to avoid being part of Russia ever again. By moving to annex Crimea, Putin, supported massively – thus far – by domestic public opinion, seems to be ending the post-imperial frustration of the past two decades.

Since 1991, however, Russia explicitly recognized the territorial integrity of Ukraine on several occasions. Such recognition was part of the 1992 Yalta Agreement, which divided the Black Sea fleet, and of the 1997 leasing contract that allowed the fleet to remain in Sevastopol. Ukraine’s territorial integrity was also recognized in the 1994 denuclearization agreement, signed by the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States, and again in April 2011, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych extended the Sevastopol lease.

The Ukrainian constitution prohibited the referendum on independence that was carried out in Crimea in the presence of Russian troops. With the vote to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation illegal by any reckoning, the international community, as the EU has declared, cannot accept the outcome.