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Dictator's Handbook: Six Regrettable Lessons To Take Away From Crimea Crisis

People attend a rally called "We are together" to support the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea to Russia in Red Square in central Moscow on March 18.
People attend a rally called "We are together" to support the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea to Russia in Red Square in central Moscow on March 18.
The speed and ease with which Russia reclaimed its hold on the Crimean Peninsula have left much of the world reeling. But the factors that went into it were years in the making. Here are six life lessons for acquisitive future dictators and countries trying to break free of them.

1. Don't Give Up Your Nukes

Twenty years ago, Ukraine was the third-largest nuclear power in the world, with 1,900 long-range and 2,400 short-range strategic warheads that had once been part of the U.S.S.R.'s Cold War arsenal. But Kyiv voluntarily handed them back to Russia in 1994, when it signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance, trading in its nuclear weapons in exchange for sovereignty and the promise that Russia would "refrain from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine."

It seemed like a good deal at the time. But many Ukrainian lawmakers are now lamenting the decision, admitting something that Pakistan and India have known for decades -- that missiles beat memoranda when it comes to keeping interlopers off your land. Or, as Verkhovna Rada lawmaker Pavlo Ryzanenko told "USA Today," "If you have nuclear weapons, people don't invade you." Fellow Budapest signatories Belarus and Kazakhstan may suddenly be ruing the day they gave up their nukes. Iran and North Korea, meanwhile, are less likely than ever to respond to global pressure to give up theirs.

2. Deals Are Meaningless

See above. The Budapest Memorandum, despite being approved by all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has in no way restrained Vladimir Putin from taking over Crimea. The Russian president has argued that the memorandum no longer holds weight because the current Kyiv government arrived via "coup" and is not legitimate in Moscow's eyes.

Nor has the Budapest deal prompted the Western co-signatories -- the United States and the United Kingdom -- to step in militarily against Moscow. The agreement, as its title suggests, provides assurances but stops short of actual security guarantees, which neither Washington nor London was prepared to offer in 1994 (or now).

In its annexation of Crimea, in fact, Moscow has violated a number of agreements, including the UN Charter, the Charter of the Council for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the 1997 bilateral Ukraine-Russia treaty, and its recently renewed lease agreement on the Black Sea Fleet, which provides for Russia's Crimean bases but not the influx of thousands of additional troops. (It did not violate the CFE Treaty on conventional armed forces in Europe, but only because it withdrew from the agreement in 2007, a year before its war in Georgia.)

3. Ethnic Cleansing Works

Possession, as they say, is nine-tenths of the law. And if you really want to put your claim on a territory, the best way to do it is by removing the locals and establishing yourself as the new majority. The tactic was successfully used against Native Americans in the United States, against Muslims and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and against millions of non-Slavic minorities living in Stalin's Soviet Union.

More than 200,000 Tatars were forcibly expelled from Crimea in 1944 on the false pretext of Nazi collaboration. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians were sent to take their place, cementing Moscow's influence and strengthening the peninsula's loyalty to the imperial center. By the 1980s, when Tatars began to return to Crimea in what was then the Ukrainian SSR, they were the interlopers and the minority. Now, with a 97 percent referendum return, Russia can argue it has "democratic" data to back its takeover bid. After all, numbers don't lie.

4. It's Not Lying If They Believe It

Both Adolf Hitler and his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels were avid proponents of the "Big Lie," a falsehood so flagrant, and so consequential, that people choose to accept it rather than believe its teller capable of such underhandedness. Putin, whose KGB training and rumored plastic surgery have rendered his expression all but unreadable, has employed several Big Lies -- and innumerable little ones -- in his Crimea campaign:

1) Russians are having their rights violated;
2) He is upset by the idea of Russians having their rights violated;
3) Power in Kyiv has been seized by fascists;
4) The situation is so dire Ukrainians themselves are fleeing to Russia;
5) No Russian troops entered Ukraine;
6) "We are not considering [annexing Crimea]."

Even in instances where such claims were demonstrably false -- as in Crimea, where Russian soldiers willingly identified themselves to journalists -- there has been no tangible downside to the lie. Cracking down on the few remaining free news outlets in Russia has only made it easier to sell this alternate narrative at home.

5. The Market Has No Morals

The Sochi Olympics provided an early reminder of this, when sponsors like McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and Procter & Gamble refused to pressure Russia on its antigay laws out of fear of hurting their profits. With the Ukraine crisis, global governance appears equally hapless. Until the EU and U.S. sanctions on March 17, there were no bodies or governments willing to penalize Russia's actions in Crimea with more than words. Some $63 billion left Russia in 2013 alone, destined for Swiss banks, Caribbean offshore accounts, and luxury real-estate markets in London, Manhattan, and southern France.

Economic struggles have compromised the ability of Western countries to act as moral standard-bearers -- they are not only dependent on Russian investment, they are potentially tied to the mafia networks that lie behind it. (Russia's Central Bank has estimated that two-thirds of the country's capital outflow are proceeds from crime, bribes, and tax fraud.) Although the Ukrainian crisis has strained Russia's $2 trillion economy -- the direct cost of annexing Crimea is estimated to be at least $3 billion -- it's not clear that sanctions will avoid a ripple effect on the EU and U.S. economies.

6. Patriotism Is Good -- Except When It's Terribly, Terribly Bad

Putin has spent most of his years in power dedicated to restoring the Russian national identity -- dusting off Stalin, resurrecting the Orthodox Church, bemoaning the collapse of the Soviet Union, exercising world-stage diplomacy, and replacing Soviet cosmopolitanism with increasingly nativist tendencies. This Great Nation-building project made it easy for the Kremlin leader to argue that the Crimean takeover was not only natural, but necessary. Leaving Crimea and its people in trouble, Putin said, "would have been nothing short of betrayal."

But having invoked patriotic sentiment at home, Putin then distorted it in Ukraine, seizing on the country's massive Euromaidan protests as an opportunity for scaremongering. The Russian president has alternately described the forces behind the Ukrainian "coup" that replaced President Viktor Yanukovych with a pro-Western interim government as nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites. (Ukraine has accused Russia of staging deliberate provocations to advance this train of thought.) This double-edged sword -- which works to Russia's advantage regardless -- may be wielded again as Moscow considers the fate of Russian "patriots" in eastern Ukraine, northern Kazakhstan, and elsewhere.

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