Crimea is being called the most serious international crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it may very well be. Russian troops are doing large-scale exercises around the peninsula which they now firmly control, and on Ukraine’s eastern border; NATO forces are doing similar drills and exercises on the western border of Ukraine and in the Baltic states.
Ukraine is ethnically divided into two groups. Southern Ukraine (Crimea) and Eastern Ukraine are ethnically Russian. They are generally supportive of the recently ousted president Yanukovych, and want a greater economic and political alignment with Russia and Putin. Western Ukraine, including the capital area of Kiev, identify as European oriented. The Crimean peninsula belonged to Russia under the Soviet Union until it was shuffled to the Ukraine for administrative purposes in 1954, which at the time seemed of little consequence since the USSR would last forever.
The intense political unrest and ouster of president Yanukovych and his government were due to their pro-Russian leanings, and were actively working to distance themselves from the EU and the west in favor of closer relations with Russia. Western Ukraine, as I said, sees itself more aligned with Europe, so these policies were frustrating.
What Russia isn’t trying to do– as many hyperbolists are suggesting– is remake the Soviet Union. Putin isn’t naive enough to think this is feasible in today’s world. He doesn’t want an all out war with Ukraine. Granted, the aggressive pursuit of control over the Crimea is probably motivated by a bit of nostalgia for old Russian glory, but the Russian government has no urge to return to an old Communist empire.
Instead, what Putin is doing is plausibly rational geopolitical, albeit unnecessarily aggressive, muscle flexing. It’s a perfectly rational thing for a nation in Russia’s position to want to exert a sphere of influence around itself, especially over former territory in a former state. While I seriously doubt Putin is worried about ethnic Russians or sympathizers being attacked and massacred in Kosovo fashion, he could be genuinely worried about a civil war erupting and destabilizing the region. More importantly, the ouster of Yanukovych could mean a return to the pro NATO and EU elements of the Orange Revolution from 2004, which is also not optimal.
Crimea is set to hold a vote this Sunday to annex itself to Russia from the Ukraine. In the end I don’t think this will be what Russia either aims for or achieves. Russia tried to set up two quasi states in Georgia after its 2008 invasion, (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) but they aren’t internationally recognized. The same would happen if Russia tried to set up an independent Crimea. But if Russia actually goes ahead and seizes territory from Ukraine, the backlash from the international community would be furious. Europe and the U.S. will probably apply sanctions and escalate diplomatic penalties. The U.S. and E.U. could decide to flood the market with cheap energy, since most of Russia’s exports and overall revenue depend on raw material and natural resources, and this would be unwelcome to Russia’s fragile economy. Russian trade and diplomatic relations will be severely damaged for who knows how long, and for what? A rock in the black sea in which Russia already has military access to? Russian markets and oligarchs are already whining to the Putin government over these pointless consequences, and these forces have major influence in Russia. To any outside analyst, it’s simply not worth it.
The best scenario for Russia to get out of the corner is a compromise for the Crimea region to be even more autonomous from Ukraine than it already is, possibly with the allowance of temporary Russian “peacekeepers” for a limited time. Ukraine and the world community aren’t going to let Crimea become its own nation, let alone be absorbed into Russia. Pressure will be applied indefinitely until that’s resolved.
The world isn’t going to go to war over this, as much as everyone likes to compare Putin to Hitler for trying to annex territory. The world economy is too interlinked for any of the world powers to seriously want that, especially over land as inconsequential as the Crimean peninsula. And if Russia did start blitzing Eastern Europe (which it wont), let us not forget that the U.S. and NATO have an absurdly large force that would decimate Russia. Russia wouldn’t start an impossible conquest.
My guess is that Russia is going to try to set up a quasi state in Crimea similar to what it did in Georgia. It will take advantage of the instability to assert its influence in the country, but I would be surprised to see permanent territorial acquisitions, none of which would have international recognition or justified costs to outweigh any imagined gains. Is this a crisis in which Russia should back off? Yes. Is this crisis a prelude to a large-scale conflict? Fat chance. Russia will back off eventually because it has no other choice.