The decision of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, to send forces into Crimea provoked a hysterical reaction, but his motives are less ambitious than is commonly assumed.
Mr. Putin’s aim is not a de jure separation of Crimea from the rest of Ukraine. That would be legally problematic and disadvantageous to Moscow in terms of its future influence over Ukrainian politics. The purpose of Russia’s incursion was to obtain the greatest possible autonomy for Crimea while still retaining formal Ukrainian jurisdiction over the peninsula.
A referendum on March 30 is likely to result in a vote for further autonomy, and it would provide Crimea with such broad freedoms that it would become a de facto Russian protectorate. Moscow would then aim to keep the Russian Black Sea fleet in Crimea indefinitely, and remove any limits on its operations, size and replenishment.
At present, Mr. Putin is seeking to strong-arm the new, weak and unstable government in Kiev into agreeing to full autonomy for Crimea rather than risk a full scale invasion into Ukraine and a partition that chops off the country’s entire south and east. The intimidated government is likely to be compelled to accept this compromise. For its part, in exchange for major Ukrainian concessions, Russia is likely to recognize the new Ukrainian government, withdraw its support for Viktor F. Yanukovych and relinquish the threat of the use of force.
This strategy seems to be paying off already. The mere specter of a Russian intervention was enough for the new Ukrainian government to abandon its threat of reducing autonomy for the “rebellious” peninsula. The acting president, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, has also announced that he will veto the scandalous Feb. 24 law that canceled Russian’s status as an official language. The West is likely to accept any agreement that does not formally violate the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Their rhetoric notwithstanding, neither the United States nor the European Union has any desire for direct confrontation with Russia.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Mr. Putin soon magnanimously announced his readiness to compromise and “guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” which the Kremlin actually never intended to violate in the first place.
That’s because Russia has a strong interest in nominally retaining Crimea as part of Ukraine. From the disintegration of the Soviet Union onward, Crimea, with its traditionally separatist leanings, was always a destabilizing factor. It served as a direct avenue of Russian pressure on Ukraine, and also guaranteed almost a million “pro-Russian” votes in Ukrainian elections, ensuring the dominance of the pro-Russian eastern half of the country over the nationalist western half.
If the Ukrainian nationalists had been smarter and more farsighted, they themselves would have advocated a renunciation of claims to Crimea in order to remove this needle in their side, but their desire for a Greater Ukraine has trumped sober political calculations.
Mr. Putin is a more farsighted and coldblooded calculator. He will therefore strive to keep Crimea as part of Ukraine, but as a reinforced instrument of Russian influence over politics in Kiev — and a powerful example for pro-Russian populations in other regions.
It’s difficult to imagine just what the new rulers in Kiev and their Western supporters thought would happen if they overthrew a democratically elected leader. Indeed, since 1992, when Kiev sparred with Moscow over Crimea’s status as part of the newly independent Ukraine, it has been clear that the Russian forces stationed there (including the Black Sea Fleet) would not remain neutral if tensions erupted. Denouncing Russian aggression is therefore disingenuous, because everyone knew that Russian involvement was inevitable if the region’s fragile political balance was disturbed. That balance held for two decades, but the Kiev upheaval laid waste to it.
Western governments, meanwhile, brought a crisis upon themselves by supporting the seizure of power by forces that were manifestly unrepresentative of the full political spectrum of Ukraine and its various regions.
The final act in Mr. Putin’s calculated gambit is likely to be a return of Yulia V. Tymoshenko to power. It was, after all, Ms. Tymoshenko, not Mr. Yanukovych, who enjoyed Moscow’s de facto support in the Ukrainian elections of 2010; and in later years, Mr. Putin expressed his strong displeasure with her prosecution by Mr. Yanukovych’s government. Although she was released from prison last month, Ms. Tymoshenko was hardly celebrated by the Ukrainian ultranationalists in control of the Maidan. Now it seems that her hour has arrived.
Mr. Putin’s threat of invading Ukraine makes Ms. Tymoshenko the only national leader with the authority and capability to forge an agreement with Russia. Having made a string of the appropriate patriotic statements, Ms. Tymoshenko has already announced her readiness to talk to Mr. Putin “for Ukraine’s sake.” She is likely to return triumphant, having “stopped” the invasion of the “Russian horde,” and even with some Russian financial aid.
The net result of yet another Ukrainian revolution will be de facto Russian control of Crimea, and a Kiev government commercially and personally bound to Mr. Putin. A weaker and more destabilized Ukraine will continue zigzagging between East and West, until the next cycle of tumultuous Ukrainian politics arrives.
The losers will be those simpletons of international politics — including the United States — who mistook the clashes of some Ukrainian neo-Nazis with Mr. Yanukovych’s police force for the dawning of democracy and the beginning of a Ukrainian Spring.
Ruslan Pukhov is director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a research organization. This essay was translated by Dimi Reider from the Russian.