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Putin has not overplayed his hand just yet, but he is playing with an incredibly weak hand.
The costs to Putin and to Russia during this little incursion could be sizeable. The Russian financial market has tumbled in recent days, economic and political sanctions have been threatened and may come to pass, and any international prestige which may have come from the Sochi Winter Olympics has long since vanished.
However, whether he has overplayed his hand or not will come down to a couple of factors:
• What will the response be from the EU and the US if Crimea decide to join with Russia in a proposed referendum in March 2014?
• What about if a pro-Russian candidate wins the upcoming Ukrainian Presidential election (unlikely to happen, as I explain below)?
• How will this affect Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO and the EU? What about other countries like Poland, will they seek more support from the EU and the US?
That is probably the main reason why Putin has not overplayed his hand. The fact is that the former Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, while he was certainly pro-Russian in many regards, was also an inconsistent political partner for Putin. The fact that Yanukovych was even considering signing the economic and trade agreement with the EU which kicked off this whole thing shows that he was not simply Putin’s lap dog.
So while it may have been better for Putin to allow elections to take place, all the while funneling money and support to a more pro-Russian candidate, and attempting to split any pro-West ticket, to get legitimate influence over Ukrainian politics, it wasn't likely to get a different result. Now it is extremely unlikely the next Ukrainian President will be so inclined to give Russia much access, especially considering that if Crimea does split from Ukraine, pro-Russian politicians cannot rely on the region where they won 78 percent of the vote in the 2010 election.
Putin though was willing to take those risks and try and keep at least part of Ukraine because he believes Ukraine to be so important to Russia. He does not consider Ukraine to be a sovereign nation, rather it is a Russian territory. For Putin, and a large part of the Russian population, the history of the Crimean peninsula is inextricably linked to Russian history. He also truly believes that pro-Western and fascist elements have deposed a democratically elected President through a coup and he must protect ethnic Russians who might fear reprisal and violence. He sees the EU, and especially NATO, as a strategic threat that must be guarded against. Not to mention his longer term wish to see an expanded Russia become a feared and respect great power again, with the attendant sphere of influence.
Look, Putin is not a Machiavellian genius who has thought out this plan, with every intricate move expertly plotted on the chalk board in the Kremlin. Some of this is a calculated move, other parts of it are him winging it. The protests in response to the Russian offer of $15 billion in aid a cut in energy prices was anticipated. The protests deposing the President were not.
Photo by Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images
If he stops now at Crimea, and finesses the US and the EU to stop NATO expansion and slow down any further integration of Ukraine with the EU, then he has probably come out of this quite well in the short-term.
Of course, it means that Russia will have yet another territory that they will have to subsidise, along with South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria, plus the massive demographic challenges that Russia already faces, along with a floundering financial market and heavy reliance on oil and gas which are always susceptible to fluctuations.