Photo credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto

Photo credit: Vittorio Zunino Celotto

Today Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that he would make Crimea officially part of Russia.

Crimea, which is currently part of Ukraine, had a forced referendum Saturday.

“Vladimir Putin is launching a new version of the evil empire that Ronald Reagan resisted decades earlier,” observes Nile Gardiner, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom. “The United States and the free world must resist Putin’s ugly power grab.”

“Putin’s attempt to annex the Crimea is only the beginning of his imperial ambitions,” Gardiner warned. “This is likely a precursor to Russia seizing the whole of Ukraine. If Putin succeeds in taking the Ukraine, he will have his eyes set on the Baltic states as his next likely conquest.”

“Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of people,” Putin told Russian politicians today, according to the New York Times.  “That faith has been preserved and passed on from generation to generation.”

Gardiner wrote this weekend on how the United States should respond to Putin’s aggressive actions:

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.