Yesterday I outlined what I still think is Russia’s preferred outcome in Crimea, one in which the strongly pro-Russian peninsula remains part of a Ukraine that is effectively subservient to Russia’s interests, no matter who is in charge in Kiev. That’s one path for Putin, and it hardly means avoiding military force—the key point is what result Russia’s aiming at.
There are two other scenarios, however, in which a Crimea more or less formally connected with Russia would make sense from Moscow’s perspective. The first is a variation on what’s already been suggested, only instead of using a Ukrainian Crimea as leverage over Ukraine as a whole, Putin uses the example of a Crimea severed from Ukraine to warn the Ukrainians that unless they play ball the Russian way, Putin will do to eastern Ukraine what he has already done to the Crimean south. A Ukraine without Crimea would have less love of Moscow, but that might be compensated, in Putin’s eyes, by greater fear.
The other possibility is that Putin is acting from weakness—that is, he’s calculated that there’s no plausible outcome in Ukraine as a whole that favors Russian interests, so he’s going to detach Crimea to salvage what he can. In this case, it doesn’t matter if removing Crimea from Ukraine makes Ukraine as a whole less cooperative with Russia because there is no chance for cooperation in any event.
And what if Russia just takes all of Ukraine? That’s basically the original scenario without the subtlety, and it comes with a great many headaches, not only in terms of the effort necessary to subdue Ukraine and the penalties the West would impose, but administering a territory as economically enfeebled and politically unstable as Ukraine isn’t an attractive prospect. An independent but subservient Ukraine looks to be what fits Russia’s interests best. The question is how Crimea fits into that—and if the best outcome, from Moscow’s perspective, is impossible, then a separated Crimea might be what Putin settles for.
(Putin also has to contend with the possibility that events will get away from him, of course—that the Crimeans may be more Catholic than the pope, so to speak, and be more eager to leave Ukraine than Putin himself would desire. And escalations of violence can throw this calculating style of politics completely out the window. But when thinking about Russia’s objectives, it’s worth keeping the big picture in mind.)
p.s. Here’s what the Russian foreign ministry is saying. Ignore the framing about far-right dangers in Ukraine and note the general political demand Russia is making:
We are surprised that several European politicians have already sprung to support the announcement of presidential elections in Ukraine this May, although the agreement of the 21 February envisages that these elections should take place only after the completion of the constitutional reform. It is clear that for this reform to succeed all the Ukrainian political forces and all regions of the country must become its part, but its results should be approved by a nationwide referendum. We are convinced that it is necessary to fully take into account concerns of deputies of eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, the Crimea and Sevastopol, which were expressed at the conference in Kharkov on the 22 February.