With Crimea in his pocket, Putin eyes next step

Russian leader’s speech on Tuesday stoked fears in Kiev that Moscow’s incursion has only just begun

With a flag depicting President Vladimir Putin, pro-Kremlin activists rally at Red Square in Moscow on Tuesday to celebrate the incorporation of Crimea.

Whatever hopes there may have been that the Crimean crisis could be de-escalated while leaving Ukraine intact appear to have been stamped out by President Vladimir Putin’s nationalist tirade against Western hypocrisy in a speech to Russia's parliament on Tuesday.

“Our Western partners, headed by the United States … have come to believe in their exceptionalism and their sense of being the chosen ones,” Putin said to uproarious applause. “That they can decide the destinies of the world, that it is only them who can be right.”

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Even in the face of intensifying economic pressure from the West and further threats of diplomatic isolation, such firebrand rhetoric could create a momentum Putin might find impossible to walk back — if that had ever been his intention. Putin now appears poised to complete the annexation of Crimea without firing a shot — Moscow says the shooting at a Simferopol military facility on Tuesday that claimed the life of a Ukrainian soldier was the work of local irregulars — and his confrontation with Western powers has sent his domestic political popularity soaring.

Many observers had hoped that acquiring Crimea would mark the peak of the Russian intervention in Ukraine, having read the aggression as a form of retaliation for the recent uprising in Kiev that spurned ties with Russia in favor of greater European integration. Crimea has now declared itself part of Russia, and Putin is celebrating a rare geopolitical victory against Western rivals whose limited economic and military leverage could not counter his commitment in Ukraine.

But Kiev’s new leaders fear that massive Russian military exercises just across the eastern border suggest Moscow's incursion into Ukraine has only just begun.

In his speech on Tuesday, which formally welcomed Crimea back to Russia, Putin did little to dispel fears that his next move will be to roll into the Russian-speaking eastern half of Ukraine under the same thin veneer of protecting his ethnic kin. Russia will “always protect” the interests of Russian speakers through “political, diplomatic and legal means,” he said, but “don't believe those who say Russia will take other regions after Crimea. We do not want a partition of Ukraine, we do not need this."

In fact, many analysts would take Putin at his word that a full-blown invasion of mainland Ukraine is an unlikely scenario. “The factors that made the Crimea operations so quick and bloodless aren’t present in the rest of the country, which is larger, less geographically isolated, more ethnically heterogeneous, and doesn’t have the same historical links to Russia,” noted Joshua Keating in Slate.

The population of eastern Ukraine is not as overwhelmingly pro-Kremlin as Crimea's, as last weekend's violent clashes between rival protesters signaled. A Crimea-style referendum endorsing annexation could not be easily engineered. And Russian forces entering mainland Ukraine would likely force the government in Kiev to order its NATO-trained forces to resist. Even though the Ukrainians would almost certainly be thrashed in a head-to-head confrontation with the Russian military, a shooting war would raise massive pressure on Western powers to back a more robust response, and could create a protracted conflict on the ground beyond Moscow's control. 

Still, the geography of the isolated Crimean peninsula seems to invite a creeping push northward. “Whether it’s invasion by tanks or through economic means, the momentum is already heading that way,” said Andrew Meier, former Moscow-based correspondent for Time magazine and author of “Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall.”

“If you look at Crimea, how much of its infrastructure, its drinking water, its energy resources are actually in Crimea? It’s a bit of a pretense to imagine that the line stops there.”

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?”

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