What are Russia’s Options in Ukraine?

by Mark N. Katz

Now that Russian forces have taken Crimea away from Ukraine, what will President Vladimir Putin do next?

There’s one thing he clearly will not do, and that’s give Crimea back to Kiev, as Ukrainian and Western governments have been calling for. Just as Moscow has backed “independent” pro-Russian governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia ever since Russian forces seized control of them from Georgia in 2008, Moscow undoubtedly intends to maintain the “new order” in Crimea indefinitely.

What exactly will that new order look like? If indeed the Crimean parliament’s plan for a referendum on whether the region should “join Russia” is held on March 16, it will undoubtedly pass. While the Ukrainian and Tatar populations oppose this, the Russian majority in Crimea has long wanted to leave Ukraine and “rejoin” Russia.

(At some point after the Bolshevik Revolution, Crimea was assigned to the Russian Federation, but in 1954 Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine. This did not matter much as long as the Soviet Union held together, but after it broke up in 1991, Russian nationalists both in Crimea and in Russia itself have been calling for the “return” of Crimea to Russia.)

If this referendum is held and yields the expected result of an overwhelming vote in favor of Crimea joining Russia, it is not clear whether Putin will proceed to incorporate it into Russia, recognize it as independent (like he did in Abkhazia and South Ossetia), or allow it to remain in limbo. Choosing the last of these options would allow hope to remain alive in Ukraine and the West that Crimea will someday return to Kiev’s control — even if Putin has no intention of allowing this. Recognizing Crimea as independent would anger Ukraine and the West, but would still allow them to hope. Incorporating Crimea into Russia, though, would signal that Moscow has no intention of allowing Crimea to return to Ukraine either now or ever.

It might seem that absorbing Crimea into Russia would not be a good choice for Moscow due to the negative effect this would have on Russian relations both with Ukraine and the West. From Putin’s point of view, though, this might actually be the most desirable course of action. Since the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan of the mid-2000s, the widespread anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia itself in late 2011/early 2012, and the recent events in Ukraine that led to the downfall of a pro-Russian government and the rise of a pro-Western one there, Putin has been fearful about the growing democratic movement in Russia that could become strong enough to topple him.
But given that incorporating Crimea into Russia would undoubtedly be popular with much of the Russian public, Western insistence that Russia give Crimea back to Ukraine might actually serve to alienate the Russian public from the West and (Putin hopes) democracy.

Russia could also now choose to absorb other parts of Ukraine where there are large Russian populations. While both Ukraine and the West would howl in protest, Western inaction at Putin’s successful wresting of control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008 and Crimea from Ukraine recently might well lead him to conclude that he can do this again with little cost.

And he might be right. However, in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Crimea Putin benefited from the fact that much of the local populations welcomed his actions. There are places in eastern Ukraine where this would also be true, but there is also a significant Ukrainian population that would oppose such a move. The danger Putin faces is that he might overestimate the local demand for absorption into the Russian sphere of influence and underestimate local opposition to it. The more of Ukraine he decides to “liberate,” the greater the risk that he will encounter this problem. Furthermore, local opposition in Ukraine to absorption by Russia, whether it is violent or peaceful, would not only serve to delegitimize this Russian effort in Ukraine and the West, but could lead to more opposition to his rule inside Russia.

Putin’s success so far in Crimea certainly gave rise to the appearance that he now has additional options to expand Russian influence in Ukraine, and perhaps elsewhere. But a decision to exercise those options in the near term may actually serve to limit his options in the long term.

Mark N. Katz

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are his alone. Links to his recent articles can be found at www.marknkatz.com



  1. Interesting read, as always, from a western perspective. Yet, we hear no talk of the west giving rise to stirring things up in the Ukraine, from the many outsiders infiltrated, etc. Just why does the west believe it’s their god given right to meddle in other countries business and that’s O.K., but if pushed back or outfoxed as has been done in this case, then Russia-Putin-is the bad guy? Of course, we don’t hear anything about the Navel base in the Crimea, which Russia uses for its fleet, save for a bit of history. Lets also not forget the blow from McCain to send elements of the U.S. Mediterranean fleet up into the Black Sea as a show of power. That would really show Putin, wouldn’t it? As I’ve noted before, this operation took time to plan as well as implement, many months, not just over night as some would have others believe. Proof of another neocon adventure gone amok, a partial job, with no cover up, unless starting WW3 is the result.

  2. If Russia absorbs Crimea that makes anti-Russian elements stronger in what’s left of Ukraine. Seems to me the smart thing for Putin is to increase his allies in Ukraine and await a free election.

  3. The goal of western “Pundits” In the coming days will to to obfuscate the fact that “Putins Options” In Ukraine are what the US and EU have left “him” with – nothing more or less. After backing and then staging a coup d’etat in Ukraine, the West (read Obama, US military establishment , The right wing of German Government and the International Finance Capital Cartel) will be up against a wall in Crimea – If they fail there then they fail in Ukraine,with the whole project and worse than that – without Crimea they would have been better off with leaving things as they were lobbing “gay rights” grenades at Putin, working that side of the street , pumping money into Orwellian named NGO’s in Russia like “the foundation democracy and world peace” or whatever it is they call it…No longer an Option. ..Obama who is known to personalize dangerous world politics, like a banana republic “Generalisimo” , is always concerned about his “machismo”, his “credibility” can be counted on to push this right up to the brink – as in Syria. Russia, will have to decide if it is willing to surrender and become a colony of the IMF, or fight back with “all means available. If we survive without seeing a nuclear holocaust triggered, it will be because of the statesmanship of Russian Leaders, and because the Masses of Europe and America demand peace and a standing down from the brink.

  4. Great piece, as usual, Professor Katz!
    I would just add that it is really important for Ukranians that the West left them behind already (someone above already mentioned that the West left the options for Putin and he did not have to fight for them as much). All the businesses in Ukraine that are functioning are profitable joint ventures with Russia, mostly located in the Eastern Ukraine, and it has been traditionally so. Because of this Eastern Ukraine traditionally leans pro-Russian, unlike the Western part of Ukraine. The Western part of the country is poor, diverse in religious and social traditions and orientation and remain peaceful as long as they are well-sponsored by the Eastern part. As for Crimea, it brings to the Ukranian budget annually more than 100 000 000 dollars for the lease of the Russian military base. This traditional/historic/economic and social dynamics + poverty, disorientation, disillusions among Ukranian population viewed as results of the colorful revolution play in Putin hands without him doing anything but letting things take their course.
    Last thing, the colorful revolution in Ukraine, especially recent events on Maydan, turned out to be connected with Ukranian nationalist and fasist movement (just read what the Ukranian “pro-western” leaders say to their own Ukranian public, not what they say to the Western press; or pay attention to what laws they pass, such as banning Russian language, which is at least unrealistic, or calling German fascist movement as a good moral force). How is Ukranian public supposed view the “West”
    [EU, NATO, US] after this? And why not join Russia, so that at least the new pro-Western government doesn’t fulfill its promise to “hang” everyone who was against them or just hire snipers to shoot at the civilian protesters again?
    As long as the West doesn’t prove to be anything, but just “advise”, “assistance” or “trains of friendship”, that bring violent socialists and fascist instead of order and prosperity, the Ukranian public will pick anything but the course that the EU suggests, and there in nothing left for them besides Russia. The Ukraninan population and politicians are well aware of the bankruptcy of Ukraninan economy and they well realize that they need to pay the bills. Western Ukraine already does not have anything to pay them with, the Eastern part is trying to save what is left. And Yanukovich, by the way, is not pro-Russian, he was and remains pro-Yanukovich, and unfortunately against Ukraine. Any alternatives to him? Obviously none. If there were, they would have been out there, though the federal referendum, for example.
    Unfortunately, looks like the mistakes were made with Ukraine much earlier than current event. Hard to believe, but much like “democratic/liberal market” shock of 1991 in Russia resulted into political course and continuos re-election of president Putin…
    Liberal democratic campaigns seem to not understand timely the needs of population they are trying to address by for example picking means and allies that seem effective short term but play against the goal of PEACEFUL and LAWFUL liberal reform for stability and prosperity, that the local population desires the most.

  5. I guess I just don/t get it. For a hundred years Russia has starved, tortured and relocated the people of Ukraine committing atrocities and stealing their wealth and future. How could anyone in their right mind want to remain part of this bloodsucking, evil, and violent haven of organized criminals?

Comments are closed.