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.