The Russians intend to stay in Crimea for good – Putin has no desire to negotiate or allow Crimea to rejoin Ukraine. Moreover, the Crimeans probably prefer it that way. The West can threaten sanctions and issue travel bans, but Crimea is so integral to Russian history and Black Sea interests that they will not back down. It is a fiat accompli, the West ultimately will have to accept it. It’s not worth another Cold War.
Ultimately Putin wants the West and Ukraine to accept that Crimea is Russian. The key to getting that acceptance may be to spread unrest in eastern Ukraine.
Although, as pointed out in previous posts, eastern Ukraine is ethnically Russian, with Russian the primary language spoken, many see themselves as Ukrainian. Most do not approve of the revolt in Kiev or the new government, but are not necessarily keen to join Russia or declare autonomy. Many others would support separating from Kiev. The people there are divided.
This gives Russia a weapon in the fight to gain international acceptance of Crimea as a part of Russia. It is not hard for Russia to incite protest and violence in eastern Ukraine, to amass troops along the Ukrainian border, and create real fear that Russia is ready to divide Ukraine. The price for keeping Russia at bay may be for the West to accept that Crimea is lost to Ukraine.
There are reasons Moscow wouldn’t want to devour eastern Ukraine. The region is an economic backwater, even taking control of Crimea will be expensive for Russia. The diplomatic, economic and political consequences of an incursion deeper into Ukraine would be tough for Moscow to endure. Crimea is strategically important, eastern Ukraine is not.
Yet Moscow can support pro-Russian protests and make menacing noises about east Ukraine in a frighteningly believable manner, upping the ante and putting fear in the hearts of Ukrainian nationalists in Kiev. By now they realize that for all the rhetoric, neither the US nor the EU are willing to risk too much against Russia.
So as the new government in Kiev ponders its options, Putin might make a pitch – a guarantee not to invade eastern Ukraine and to cease any effort at destabilizing the region in exchange for Ukraine’s voluntary agreement to surrender all sovereign rights to Crimea. At this point Kiev is adamant they’ll never do that, but as the crisis continues, the deal may look good. Putin may even offer to assure the eastern Ukrainians that they should accept the Kiev government.
The US and EU could also exert pressure on Kiev to accept losing Crimea in exchange for more aid and support in their effort to westernize. If Kiev and Moscow reached an agreement, the argument that President Obama made – that the West would “never” accept the Crimean vote to join Russia – could be overcome. The US and EU can accept it if the Ukrainian government voluntarily makes a deal with Moscow to cede Crimea.
Moscow’s game is to make it in the interest of the West and Ukraine to accept the reality that Russia controls Crimea. The danger is that the pro-Russian protests could get out of control, creating a real crisis in eastern Ukraine. If that happens, Russia might be tempted to consider intervention, which would ratchet up the danger.