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Putin’s tough talk on Tuesday leaves Kiev and its Western backers in the unenviable position of deciphering what exactly Russia needs in order to step back from the brink. Optimists interpret the threat of Russian invasion in Ukraine as just that: a threat. By amassing forces along Ukraine’s eastern border, Russia can create leverage behind its demand for the constitutional restructuring of Ukraine into an entity that plays by the Kremlin’s rules, some analysts argue. A radically federalized Bosnia-style division of Ukraine into a pro-European western half and a Russian-speaking east would effectively thwart another dramatic shift away from Moscow, even if it would cripple Ukraine’s integrative democratic development.
But Russia's endgame may not be that clearly defined. As he has always done, Putin will fashion his tactics in response to the unfolding situation on the ground and the extent of pushback he experiences from Western powers. “This has been very much one step forward, one step back, one step sideways,” said Meier. “I don’t think there is a grand strategy — it’s a test of wills.” Putin will likely not back down until he feels Russia has sufficiently reasserted itself in Ukraine, or the West has mustered pressures sufficient to deter him.
Putin's tongue-lashing of Western hypocrisy on Tuesday may, however, also offer clues to his agenda in Ukraine. Some observers are already calling his Duma speech the defining moment of his presidency.
Indeed, Putin’s audacity in Russia’s “near abroad” — former Soviet territories — is often explained as an effort to draw a line after years of what the Russian strategic establishment views as steady Western encroachment since the fall of the USSR. When the recent uprising toppled his ally in Kiev and signaled a Ukrainian turn to the European Union and NATO, Putin moved quickly and forcefully to reassert Russian influence in a country he still considers a fixture in the Russian sphere of influence. With his European rivals incapacitated by economic factors ranging from reliance on Russia for natural gas to the scale of the EU's fiscal challenges, and the U.S. in no position to contemplate a high-risk military intervention in a country of limited geopolitical significance, that rationale has been validated.
“Look at Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya: This is the real first time where Putin has been able to say, ‘Enough, this is how we do things,’” Meier said. “The question now is, does he get away with it? Is that gamble going to be able to stand up?”
A majority of people in every area in Crimea identify Russian as their native tongue
For Putin, countering the threat of a Ukraine strongly aligned with the West is do or die
Analysis: Putin can't win Kiev back, but he might be satisfied with a geopolitically ambiguous Bosnia-style solution