Stanislav Krasilnikov/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Stanislav Krasilnikov/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Crimea has just announced the preliminary result of its forced referendum. Unsurprisingly, 95 percent of those taking part in the poll voted in favor of Crimea seceding from Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation. But the Crimea referendum was a farce, and the free world must unite in rejecting it and calling on Russia to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

This was an illegal vote engineered by Moscow and enforced at the barrel of a gun, in complete violation of the Ukrainian Constitution. Crimeans went to the polls under conditions of occupation and massive intimidation, with dissenting voices ruthlessly suppressed, Ukrainian media shut down, foreign journalists beaten on the streets, and international observers barred from the region.

The rule of law was replaced by the boots of Russian troops masquerading as “self-defense” forces. The bogus referendum result will be used by Russian President Vladimir Putin as justification for the annexation of Crimea and as a possible precursor to a larger invasion of eastern Ukraine.

This is a moment for robust leadership from the United States, as well as key allies in Europe, including Great Britain and Germany. Moscow’s naked act of aggression in Crimea must be emphatically condemned and rejected. President Putin should be told in no uncertain terms that there will be an immediate price to be paid for enacting his imperial ambitions, beginning with the immediate U.S. withdrawal from the hugely flawed New START Treaty and the swift implementation of targeted sanctions, including visa bans and the freezing of financial assets, against any Russian official or private citizen (including the oligarchs that surround the Kremlin) involved in aggression against Ukraine or in human rights violations on the ground. The Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2012, should be applied without mercy against Russia’s ruling elites, who have been instrumental in keeping Putin’s brutal regime in power.

A hard-line sanctions policy—with real teeth and not just empty rhetoric—must be coupled with the bolstering of NATO allies in close proximity to Russia. This should include the deployment of additional U.S. military assets to the region, especially the four members that border Ukraine: Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, and the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The message should be sent directly to Moscow that any threat to a NATO member will be met with the invocation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and the full force of the NATO alliance. In addition, the Obama Administration must act to lift restrictions on the export of liquefied natural gas to U.S. allies in Europe that have become increasingly energy dependent on Moscow.

It is time for President Obama to recognize reality and acknowledge that the “Russian reset” is dead and buried. Policies of appeasement serve only to feed the Russian bear and weaken America on the world stage. The United States must be crystal clear: Actions have consequences, and Putin’s vicious and ugly power grab in Crimea will cost Russia dearly. And Russia should be made to think twice before attempting to play the same game again elsewhere, especially in the Baltics.