To an uproar of applause, cheers and tears in the Russian parliament, Vladimir Putin on 21 March signed the decree that absorbed Crimea into Russian territory.

This annexation was portrayed by Putin as a response to the democratic wishes of Crimea – referencing the recent referendum that overwhelmingly voted for the unification of Russia and Crimea. Putin’s newfound enthusiasm for democracy must surely be one of the most moving personal developments in recent history, akin perhaps to an aging Nazi’s sudden conversion to Judaism.

How are we to understand the 93 percent vote in favour of joining Russia? Under the caring eyes of Russian troops, tanks and a complete blackout of all media that isn’t rabidly pro-Kremlin, residents of Crimea had a choice between two options: joining Russia, or returning to the obscure historical status of the 1992 Crimean constitution which declared Crimea an independent republic – a state of affairs that lasted slightly less than two weeks.

The option of remaining part of Ukraine seems to have accidentally got lost when the ballot papers were being produced. Strangely enough, despite Crimea’s 24 percent ethnic Ukrainian and 12 percent Crimean Tatar populations – both of whom are not overly fond of Russia – only 7 percent voted no.

To be fair, if the referendum had been transparent and honest, it is likely that Putin would still have won. The reason for this is not a deep yearning for Russian brotherhood, but a combination of unease about Ukraine’s new right wing nationalist government, and an extensive history of brutal economic exploitation of the Crimean region.

The long rule of Yanukovich and Timoshenko saw the building of high-storey living blocks in the middle of the famous Crimean botanical garden, the degradation of the local ecology, contamination of drinking water, a sharp fall in living standards and widespread privatisation.

Russian oppression is yet to come, but oppression by Ukrainian oligarchs has been experienced for a while. This does not of course make the referendum even a sliver more democratic.

Putin wants to create a sphere of influence and bully the rest of Ukraine. He wants to control the important gas pipelines that run to Europe and “nationalise” Crimean oil companies so that they can be acquired by the Russian state firm Gazprom.

The US has imposed limited sanctions on Russia, starting with Russia’s SMP bank and Bank Rossiya – both owned and operated by Putin’s associates. Obama has threatened more action against the Russian economy if Putin intervenes in the rest of Ukraine.

The left should oppose all Western sanctions against Russia. The US and EU are no less vicious and hypocritical. Cynical talk by Western leaders about the democratic rights of the Ukrainian people is simply cover for their own imperialist agenda.

Yet unfortunately, some left commentary continues to expound a kind of “lesser evilism”. Longstanding socialist Eamonn McCann for example, in an article in the Irish Times, writes that “When it comes to double-talk, however, there is no contest. Putin is never going to be a match for Obama at talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time.”

The problem is that a smaller evil is no less evil. The watchwords have to be internationalism and working class solidarity. There is good reason to hope that the people of the region can impose their own will on their rulers. After all, Yanukovich was ousted by a movement that, despite its limitations, was a genuine uprising from below.

Recent protests in Russia against war drew 50,000 people to the streets of Moscow, a development not seen since Russia was rocked by anti-government protests in 2011.

The process of building a genuinely revolutionary movement in Russia and Ukraine will take time. It will require organising, political argument and clarification. The question of Russian imperialism will undoubtedly take centre stage.