Conventional wisdom has concluded that Vladimir Putin, having "lost" Ukraine, has decided to break off the Crimean peninsula as his fallback plan—a view reinforced by the warm endorsement of the upper house of the Russian legislature to the idea that Crimea should be able to leave Ukraine and join Russia if a majority of its residents so indicate in the forthcoming referendum. I may be wrong, but I have my doubts that this is the preferred option. After all, Crimeans in the past have tried to join the Russian Federation, and been rebuffed on the grounds that the secession of the peninsula did not serve Russian strategic interests. That rationale is still operative today.
Many have argued that Putin's efforts to detach Crimea revolve around his vision of creating the Eurasian Union—and that if Ukraine as a whole will not plan to join, then he will seek to take parts of Ukraine piecemeal. However, the core of the proposed Eurasian Union remains the close economic and political partnership between Russia and Kazakhstan. Support for Crimean separatism on the grounds the Russian government has announced—the need to support and defend the rights of majority-ethnic Russian communities outside of Russia—poses a direct threat to Kazakhstan's own territorial integrity. It smacks of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's plan in his 1990 essay "How to Rebuild Russia" which called for a post-Soviet Russia to gather in the ethnic Russian lands contiguous to the borders of the Russian Federation while letting the non-Russian nationalities go their own way—which would have meant that up to half of Kazakhstan's territory would have ended up as part of Russia. Certainly, Nazarbayev will express his unease at how the situation in Ukraine is unfolding during his talks with Putin this week.
If detaching Crimea does not serve overall Russian strategic interests, then why proceed with the referendum, which will certainly show that a majority of the peninsula's residents are in favor of severing ties to Ukraine? This may be part of a larger, more delicate effort to turn back the clock in Kyiv as a whole.
The Russian government continues to maintain that Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Kyiv and sought refuge in Russia, remains the legitimate president of Ukraine. I am not a Ukrainian constitutional expert, but it does appear that Yanukovych's removal is, from a strict constructionist perspective, extra-legal at best; the Rada did not pass the impeachment resolution with a sufficient number of votes, and while some have argued that Yanukovych's act of abandoning the capital constitutes a de facto resignation, he still has not signed a formal written document to that effect. Indeed, the only paper he initialed was a political agreement to step down as president by the end of the year and to hold new elections.
Putin conceded that Yanukovych has "no power" but if he could reset the situation to the status quo of February 21—which would require Yanukovych's return and would require a repudiation of the subsequent provisional administration and shortened timeline for elections—then he will have achieved a major political victory. Given how events have moved since then, a return to the status quo ante seems highly unlikely—but Putin appears to be arguing in his interactions with European leaders that the present political transition in Ukraine is neither sustainable nor viewed as completely legitimate, and that a new dialogue is required.
This is where I believe the vote in Crimea comes into play. By demonstrating the "will of the people" of Crimea not to accept or accede to the new order in Kyiv, it sets up a process to renegotiate the status of the peninsula (and perhaps other portions of Ukraine) to better guarantee Russian interests. For instance, one could envision a shift to a "commonwealth" whereby Crimea enjoys a special status and legal relationship with Russia that the central government in Kyiv could not alter. A more "regional" Ukraine might permit eastern areas to deepen their connectivity to Russia. Or, the Russians might push for a federal Ukraine whereby questions of the country's overall geopolitical and geoeconomic orientation would require not simply a majority in the Rada to pass but would require the assent of all component parts of Ukraine. If Crimean assent would be required, for instance, to approve Ukraine's membership in international bodies, then Moscow would, for the foreseeable future, retain a near-ironclad veto.
At the same time, Putin could demonstrate to his European partners (starting with Germany and Italy) who are not eager to rupture ties with Moscow yet who feel a need to take a stand opposing the Crimean intervention that there would be a diplomatic solution, the creation of a process of dialogue that they could point to and give Europe sufficient cover for backing away from long-term sanctions.
None of this, of course, would be acceptable to vast segments of Ukraine's political elite, and certainly not to the central and western portions of the country, which supported the Maidan movement. It would also not be welcomed by some of the countries in the EU that have been the strongest proponents of the "eastern partnership" approach. Whether or not the United States would go along would depend on whether Ukraine is seen as a distraction from other issues and a desire to get this problem off the agenda as soon as possible. But in the absence of concerted action to reverse Russian actions, the wider international community might learn to live with the situation—just as Georgia has learned to cope with the effective loss of two of its autonomous regions after 2008.
If my read of the situation is correct, and the Russians are not interested in outright annexation of the Crimea, then Putin is on track to present the interim administration in Ukraine with a difficult conundrum: what concessions are they willing to make to fulfill interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's pledge that not a "centimeter" of Ukrainian territory will be lost?
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at The National Interest , is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.