KIEV, UKRAINE — Ukraine has irreversibly lost Crimea, and it cannot be recovered anytime soon.
Having seized the peninsula militarily, Vladimir Putin is not going to relinquish it, especially since his conquest has been "ratified" by a referendum carried out under military occupation. But America can and should turn Putin's temporary military triumph into a long-term strategic political defeat.
Since coming to power in 2000, Putin has been obsessed with one idea: restoring Russia's imperial greatness. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia lost its entire imperial landholdings from Kazakhstan in the east to Lithuania in the west. The economy went into free fall, culminating in the 1998 default and devaluation of the ruble.
However, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's much hated economic reforms began Russia's transformation to a market economy. Putin initially carried out further reforms.
But the critical factor boosting his regime's apparent success was the sharp rise in energy prices, which serendipitously (for Putin) began their climb just as he became Russia's president. If oil prices had remained low, Putin could well have been a one-term president.
By 2008, Russia's economy and Putin were riding high on the crest of ever-increasing oil prices. Putin saw economic growth as mere servant to the expansion of state power, allowing for greater military spending — and hence, opportunities to exercise geo-political strength.
Putin soon felt ready to take on Georgia. It frustrated him that the former Soviet republic was undertaking dramatic reforms under its dynamic young president Mikheil Saakashvili, and was on a fast track to NATO membership.
In a five-day blitzkrieg, Putin succeeded in defeating Georgia's minuscule army, effectively annexing two small Georgian provinces to his new imperial Russia. State-controlled media proclaimed this to be a resurrection of Russia's greatness, and a defense of the rights of Russian speakers in Russia's "near abroad."
Russia's economic growth, however, has flatlined. Russia is lagging behind its BRIC peers — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — and even further behind Western Europe and America.
Putin's quasi-dictatorial governance model has run into a dead-end. So, he needs foreign military adventures to maintain his popularity.
Last month Putin decided to invade Ukraine and annex its province of Crimea. He is outraged and indignant that his corrupt and discredited puppet Viktor Yanukovych had been ousted in a popular revolt. For Putin, a change of government, unsanctioned by him personally, is adequate reason to violate international law and Ukraine's sovereignty.
A provisional regime in Crimea held an illegal referendum to approve Putin's land grab. This will almost certainly be followed by Crimea's annexation by Russia.
Russians explain their invasion of a neighboring state by pointing to the fact that Crimea was part of Russia until Soviet party chief Nikita Khrushchev arbitrarily redrew the borders in 1954.
Moscow has also used outright falsehoods to bolster its case, employing manufactured claims of repression against ethnic Russians in Ukraine, contrary to all evidence. And finally, Russian diplomats made an entirely false analogy with Kosovo.
NATO intervened in the former Serbian province to halt widespread ethnic cleansing and state violence. Kosovo, moreover, spent nine years under U.N. administration before formally declaring independence.
There are no human rights issues involved in Crimea — only a naked attempt at annexation of an attractive piece of real state by an avaricious Kremlin.
Putin probably can't be dislodged from Crimea. But he can be restrained.
America and Europe need to enact stiff sanctions, to make Putin understand that his aggressive and unlawful behavior entails real costs for his regime and his cronies. Otherwise, he will greedily eye additional incursions not only in Ukraine, but also in the rest of the former Soviet empire.
The people of Ukraine are united in their determination to bring about fundamental political and economic reforms their country desperately needs. Ukraine requires short- and long-term financial assistance and technical assistance to reform its outdated Soviet-era institutions and bolster its fragile economy. It also needs more military hardware and advanced training for its soldiers.
The United States should be making every effort to support them. America should always support the democratic aspirations of people anywhere.
It is also in our long-term strategic interest to come to Ukraine's aid. An economically stable and democratic Ukraine will naturally be a valuable American ally in a volatile neighborhood.
The root cause of the volatility in this region is Vladimir Putin's imperial ambition. By bolstering Ukraine, and making Putin pay a price for unprovoked aggression against his neighbors, the United States can advance both its moral and national-security interests.
Mark Nuckols is a U.S. citizen and professor at the Moscow-based Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
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