Paul Greenberg

Ham and eggs, dictators and plebiscites, tyranny and sham elections, they all go together. So it was wholly to be expected, which means it was wholly a surprise to our ever-alert administration, when the latest tsar decided Crimea was ripe for the picking and sent in the Cossacks (sans identifying insignia for now). As usual in these matters, the local bullyboys, formally known in press reports as militias, backed up the not very well disguised Russian troops. With that little formality out of the way, Vlad the Annexer ordered a plebiscite (and its usual result) for immediate delivery, specifically Sunday, March 16, 2014. Satisfaction Guaranteed.

It was all according to Hoyle, or rather Hitler, whose well-thumbed playbook specified that each conquest, from the remilitarization of the Rhineland in the West to the Anschluss with Austria in the East, be approved by a rigged referendum. Then came the takeover of Czechoslovakia piece by piece -- first the Sudetenland and then the rest on the installment plan. It was all easy enough, and predictable enough, after the Western democracies had collapsed at Munich. That grab, too, would be ratified at the ballot box as the pattern continued: first conquest, then plebiscite.

The outer signs of democracy must be preserved while its substance is hollowed out. To quote T.S. Eliot, the poet laureate of Western decadence Between the Wars: Shape without form, shade without colour/ Paralysed force, gesture without motion . . . . The lines are from "The Hollow Men," a title that might be the perfect description of Western leadership then as now, from Neville Chamberlain to Barack Obama.

Once again a popular vote, this time in newly captive Crimea, is staged -- but Tsar Vladimir took no chances with the wording of the ballot. The voters would have only two choices: annexation to the Soviet Union -- excuse me, Russia -- now or later, immediately or as soon as Crimea's puppet parliament approves. And it will once Moscow pulls its strings. There is no way for Crimeans to vote for remaining in supposedly independent Ukraine. And this will be called a free expression of the people's will.

"Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine," says President Obama. "In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders." Really? If so, our president must have forgotten to tell the Russians, whose latest tsar keeps adding to his subjects, from Georgia to Crimea.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.