1. The importance of Crimea for Russian security: Numerous commentators have stressed the potential short-term and long-term economic and political costs to Russia of annexing Crimea and/or an extended military conflict with Ukraine (see in particular this commentary by Sergei Guriev and this one by Samuel Greene). So perhaps the simplest answer to this question is that whatever the economic costs, the Russian leadership has become convinced that doing nothing after ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Ukraine represented a security threat that could not be ignored. This could have been due to a very specific calculation, such as the belief that there was a credible threat to the future of the Russian Black Sea Fleet based in Crimea, or it could have been due to a more general concern that allowing Russia’s ally — Yanukovych — to fall without a response would signify weakness moving forward. Either way, the key distinction of this explanation is that Russia’s moves were essentially reactive in nature to a perceived security threat.
Implications: If Russia’s security concerns can be addressed, there is the possibility that Putin would be willing to “de-escalate” the crisis in ways that might look more like the pre-crisis status quo, with the exception that Crimea ends up being part of Russia as opposed to Ukraine. Such a deal would probably involve guarantees of energy, water and other resources for Crimea, permanent neutrality for Ukraine, OSCE monitors for coming elections, etc. But that being said, what it actually means to “address Russia’s security concern” is, of course, an open question, as is what this means long-term for southern and eastern Ukraine.
2. The “greater Russia” plan: A second set of explanations focused on Russian security concerns takes a much bigger view of Russian security by keying in on a 2005 speech in which Putin stated (according to the Kremlin Web site — others use different translations) that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster.” While debates remain about what Putin actually was implying during the speech, references to this quote during the current crisis are usually taken to imply that we should see Russia’s actions in Crimea from the prism of a Kremlin with a long-term goal of trying, if not to reestablish the old Soviet Union, then at least to create a “greater Russia” that would encompass many of the millions of Russians who found themselves living in successor states of the former Soviet Union outside Russia after the U.S.S.R collapsed.
This would suggest that the long-term plan is to grow the size of Russia, and that Crimea (and perhaps southern and eastern Ukraine) were opportunities that presented themselves following the Euromaidan uprising. From this vantage point, we might not think that Russia was planning years ahead of time to get involved in Ukraine as soon as the 2014 Olympics ended, but that the general plan of expanding when opportunities present themselves would have been on the table for a while. In particular, the Kremlin’s efforts to get Russians to repatriate assets to Russia is given as a sign that growing conflict with the West had been anticipated in advance. Unlike the previous security related explanation, this one posits Russia as being more opportunistic than reactive, and being motivated more out of a belief in potential long-term security gains rather than fears over immediate security threats.
Implications: Crimea is annexed by Russia; future moves by Russia into southern and eastern Ukraine with an eye toward annexing more territory would remain a possibility. More moves like this in the future in other locations would also seem possible.
3. Putin’s post-2011 new domestic constituency: As Boris Barkanov pointed out here on The Monkey Cage (and numerous others have noted elsewhere), the 2011/2012 Russian presidential cycle presented a new threat to Putin in the form of mass protests after allegations of electoral fraud in the parliamentary elections. This in turn, it is argued, has pushed Putin to embrace a more socially conservative and nationalistic constituency to support him during his current term of office. For many reasons — including religious ties and nationalism — Russia’s moves in Crimea are assumed to be very popular with these crowds. And indeed, Putin’s approval ratings have surged since the crisis began (although this is common in any case when countries get involved in international disputes, called “rally-round-the-flag” effects by political scientists). From this vantage point, what Putin is doing vis-à-vis Ukraine and Crimea is simply a natural outgrowth of where he is now looking for support domestically in Russia.
Implications: Russia goes ahead with the announced plan to annex Crimea, as the level of rhetoric in Russia on the issue would suggest the possibility of domestic backlash if this is not done. If Putin is primarily motivated by domestic concerns, then it seems unlikely he would go to all this effort to risk such a backlash. Further intervention in southern and eastern Ukraine would also seem to be a possibility, although at some point one would think the benefits from appealing to his more conservative constituents would max out.
4. The Euromaidan example as a threat to the Russian political regime: A slightly different way to conceptualize the current crisis would be to say that it has little to do with Crimea per se, but rather is more about a response to the way in which Yanukovcyh was removed from power. Similar to the first security-based explanation, this point of view would posit that Putin is largely reacting to events in Ukraine, but here the worry is not the security concerns over Crimea or the Black Sea Fleet, but rather the reaction of Russians — and especially Muscovites — to what they saw unfold in Kiev.
Whatever one thinks about the relative merits of what the Russians called “sovereign democracy” and what political scientists refer to as “competitive authoritarianism,” it is clear that there were similarities between Yanukovych’s Ukraine and Putin’s Russia. One of the hallmarks of the Soviet rule was that the U.S.S.R wanted a buffer of like-minded regimes between it and the West and was willing to take rather dramatic steps (e.g., Hungary 1956; Czechoslovakia 1968) to preserve this state of affairs; it may very well be the case that Putin has similar preferences. From this vantage point, the primary targets here are the new Ukrainian regime and Russian opposition forces.
Implications: What happens in Ukraine is more important than Crimea, which means that annexation of Crimea is unlikely to be the end of the story. This could mean subtle moves to destabilize the new regime, continued military encroachment and/or conflict in southern and eastern Ukraine, or even a longer-term plan to try to return Yanukovych to power. It also means that moves to control opposition within Russia are not peripheral to the current conflict, but part of the overall strategy. (Of course, the question that needs to be asked here is why exactly the 2014 Euromaidan events would be seen to warrant such a more serious reaction than the 2004 Orange Revolution, but I’ll leave that for a future post.) This explanation, however, does seem to make it less likely that Russia will be targeting territories outside Ukraine anytime in the near future.
To reiterate, my intent here has been to summarize potential explanations and not to argue in favor of one or the other. I do not know which — if any of these — explanations are correct, and it is possible that Putin is driven by all (or none) of these concerns. However, in the coming days, weeks and months, perhaps events on the ground will give us more of a sense of which interpretation is closer to the mark, which in turn might provide insight into longer-range developments.