Exactly what sort of game is Vladimir Putin playing in Crimea? In frantic meetings between leaders of the United States, NATO and major Western countries over the weekend, that question, redolent of the bad old days of Kremlinology, hung in the air: What was the Russian president seeking with his full-scale military invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula?
The Western response to the invasion will depend upon the answer to that question. This is not, despite the rhetoric, a return to the Cold War, and Russia could well be pulled back from the brink of international conflict – if Mr. Putin's goals are interpreted correctly. There are three likely possibilities:
A temporary act of protection. If Mr. Putin and his ministers are taken at their word, they have sent thousands of troops into Ukraine simply to protect Russia's considerable assets in Crimea from the instability that has overtaken the country since its president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by a protest movement and his own parliament.
Indeed, Russia's military assets in Crimea, which it has been guaranteed since the country broke from the former Soviet Union in 1991 – including the major Black Sea naval base, airfields and tens of thousands of troops – are technically less secure at the moment.
But the possibility that Russia's actions are simple protection measures is undercut by some of the political moves in Crimea – including the region's interim prime minister making a gesture of asking Russia for assistance and the head of Ukraine's navy "defecting" from Ukraine by declaring his allegiance to an independent Crimea in the presence of a Russian-speaking leader. These have the air of Kremlin-orchestrated gestures and suggest that something more than mere protection is taking place.
Still, there are signs that both the United States and Ukraine's interim government are willing to entertain this possibility, and are negotiating a deal in which the security of Russia's Crimean assets are guaranteed in exchange for a withdrawal of Russian troops. There were reports on Sunday that former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, recently freed from prison, had gone to Moscow to meet with Mr. Putin, with whom she has a close and long-standing relationship, to discuss such possibilities. And Secretary of State John Kerry's statements on Sunday suggested that this will be the first option he will pursue after arriving in Kiev on Monday.
A de facto annexation of Crimea. This is what happened in 2008 to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions of Georgia: Mr. Putin inflamed an existing conflict between ethnic groups loyal to Russia and Georgia, provoked Georgia into attacking, and used that as a rationale for a Russian military occupation of the two regions, which continues to this day and appears to be more or less permanent.
While only a handful of countries recognize these regions as being independent from Georgia, the military occupation has turned them into de facto outposts of Russia. Some analysts have suggested that this is exactly the game Mr. Putin is playing in Crimea, a traditionally Russian territory in which a majority of citizens are Russian-speaking.
But there is good reason to doubt this scenario: Unlike in Georgia, the cost of annexing part of Ukraine, even unofficially, would be prohibitively high.
Is Mr. Putin really willing to throw away his economic relations with the West – worth hundreds of billions of dollars annually – simply in order to add Crimea back to Russia's territory? On the face of it, this makes little sense, as Russia has been fully able to get the only thing it wants from Crimea – a secure Black Sea naval base – since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, without having to support a poor and fractious population.
"Abkhazia is not Crimea, and Russian incentives in the two regions do not match," observes Kimberly Marten, a Russia analyst at Columbia University. First, she notes, Crimea was never subject to a brutal civil war, unlike the Georgian regions, and harbours few major resentments toward either Moscow or Kiev. "That means that a peaceful, negotiated settlement to Crimea's ultimate status is much more likely than it ever was for Abkhazia." And Ukraine's government may not be as aggressive and trigger-happy as Georgia's was in 20008.
"In the long run," Dr. Marten concludes, "it is not in Moscow's interest to be saddled with the costs of governing the complex ethnic mix of Crimea, given its significant Tatar population that is hostile hostile to Russian control."
A 'Finlandization' of Ukraine. Rather than a takeover or a mere security gesture, it is entirely possible that Mr. Putin is seeking to do with Ukraine what he has attempted all along: to ensure that it remains tied to Russia economically and strategically, and does not become politically or, especially, militarily tied to Europe.
Rather than seeking to divide Ukraine and annex the more Russian part of its territory, in this scenario Mr. Putin is seeking to ensure that Ukraine's loyalties will remain neutral, out of fear or out of persuasion, and the country's perpetual divide between east and west will not tilt too far toward Europe. During the Cold War this tactic became known as "Finlandization," as Finland, facing similar threats and opportunities from Moscow, stayed neutral in the global conflict. Recently some Western officials have suggested that this is the best possible outcome: Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former U.S. Secretary of State, argued last week for "the Finnish model as the ideal example for Ukraine, and the EU, and Russia." It would not be a satisfying outcome for Ukraine's post-Yanukovych government, but it may end up being the only feasible outcome that does not involve splitting up Ukraine or provoking a war.