Russia’s occupation of Crimea, following its unsuccessful efforts to prop up the repressive government of recently deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, is obviously an extremely troubling development. Russian claims that its military intervention is needed to to protect the Russian-speaking population in Crimea are a blatantly transparent excuse for naked aggression. If Vladimir Putin succeeds here, as he did over Georgia in 2008, it could encourage further Russian aggression against its neighbors in the future.

The new pro-Russian regional government in Crimea (which came to power in a coup last week), has scheduled a referendum on independence for March 30 [but see update on the meaning of the referendum below]. Quite possibly, Putin intends to use the referendum as a justification for either annexing Crimea or creating a Russian puppet state there, similar to those Russia previously carved out of Georgia and Moldova. If the vote does not go his way, Putin and his allies will not hesitate to rig the results, as he has in elections in Russia itself.

The idea that Crimea should be an independent nation or part of Russia is not inherently objectionable. More than half of the region’s population are ethnic Russians, and Crimea only was attached to Ukraine as a result of a decision by Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. However, independence or annexation under the auspices of the Putin regime would likely result in the creation of the same sort of repressive government as now exists in Russia itself, or even worse. It could also result in substantial repression of the Crimean Tatar population, which opposes Russian control, and has a long history of oppression at the hands of Russian and Soviet rulers. Moreover, a successful Russian coup in Crimea might encourage Putin to try to lop off other parts of Ukraine, such as the eastern region of the country, which also has a large Russian population (though they are not the majority there). Finally, a real or imagined success in Crimea would strengthen Putin’s grip on power in Russia itself, and make political liberalization in that country even more unlikely than it would be otherwise.

There is, therefore, plenty of reason to oppose Russia on this issue. The difficult question is how to do it. For obvious reasons, the US and other Western powers cannot and should not go to war with Russia. Ukraine itself also probably lacks the military power needed to oppose Russia effectively. The best of the flawed available options is probably to impose tough sanctions targeted at Russia’s political elites, as recommended by Fareed Zakaria and Russian politics expert Leon Aron, among others. As Aron points out, Putin is not an absolute dictator, and he depends on Russian elites for essential political support. That support might be undermined by forcing the elite to pay a price for supporting him:

Yet even with the military option off the table, the U.S. still has quite a few diplomatic and economic tools at its disposal….

The U.S. and its allies also must keep in mind that most, if not all, of these measures are aimed not only at Putin but at the elites around him and at the Russian public at large. Dominant though he is, Putin is not Stalin or Brezhnev. Russia is not the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain is gone – the internet exists and public opinion matters….

[T]he risks [imposed by potential sanctions] would involve Russia’s membership in the G-8, the safety of financial and other assets of the Russian elite which are located outside of Russia, as well as the ability of the members of this elite and their families to visit, live or study in the U.S. and the EU. In addition, Moscow’s behavior could trigger new export controls, which given its dependence on Western technology, particularly in the oil and gas sector as well as in the food industry, could have a very negative impact on the Russian economy.​

Russia’s political and economic elites place great value on trade and investment relations in the West, and on their ability to travel abroad and acquire and hold assets in Western nations. Since these elites were and are complicit in the Putin regime’s human rights abuses at home and aggressive actions abroad, sanctions targeting them would not victimize innocent people, as is often the case with conventional economic sanctions.

There is no easy solution to present crisis, and it is possible that Putin will ultimately get away with occupying Crimea. But if he and the political elites he depends on for support pay a steep price for their actions, it is less likely they will repeat them in the future.

UPDATE: There is some confusion on whether the Crimean referendum scheduled for March 30 is really going to be about independence or not. The new pro-Russian Crimean government claims that it would merely “enhance” Crimea’s autonomy within Ukraine, but would not seek secession or unification with Russia. On the other hand, Volodymyr Konstantynov, chairman of the Supreme Council of Crimea and a high-ranking official in the same new regime, claims that it would give Crimea the status of a “state” and that Crimea – and Ukraine as a whole – belong to “the Russian world.” Some Russian media describe it as a referendum on independence as well. The Russian-language text of the question to be put before the voters is as follows:

Автономная республика Крым обладает государственной самостоятельностью и входит в состав Украины на основе договоров и соглашений (да или нет)?”

I loosely translate this as “The autonomous republic of Crimea possesses state independence and is a part of Ukraine on the basis of treaties and agreements (yes or no)?” In Russian, as in English, this legalistic language is ambiguous enough to be interpreted either way. Perhaps it means that Crimea is an independent state that has some loose connection to Ukraine based on agreements. Or it could mean that Crimea has a legal right to be independent if it want to, but has chosen not to be. Legalistic hair-splitting aside, there is little doubt that Putin could use the referendum as a pretext for justifying de facto Russian control of Crimea, even if not de jure.