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Even before the Crimean parliament voted unanimously today to ask Moscow for permission to become a part of Russia, Russian forces had all but completed the process of establishing a new reality on the ground in Crimea—that the region simply isn’t under the control of the central Ukrainian government in Kiev anymore. And so, barring a major military response by the Ukrainian Army or a massive Russian excursion into Eastern Ukraine, it looks like Putin’s endgame is about to unfold.
Many analysts have made mention of the Russian naval base at Sevastopol and how, as Russia’s main warm-water naval installation, it is of key importance to Russia. Negotiations with Ukraine over Russia's continuing operation of the base have gotten tense in the past, although a 2010 agreement gave Russia a lease until 2042.
Just to be safe, however, Russia has been quietly building a potential replacement at Novorossiysk, a commercial port a couple hundred miles east that has the notable distinction of actually being in Russia. It could house the Black Sea Fleet if Russia were to lose Sevastopol, and further expansion of naval facilities there could reduce or even eliminate Russian dependence on Crimea.
If the Russian Navy stays in Sevastopol, and Crimea stays in Ukraine, Ukraine would almost certainly be blocked from joining NATO. Ukraine has been trying to join for years to protect itself from… well, from this. But a country can’t join NATO if it has a foreign military base on its soil. So, if Russia stays in Sevastopol and Crimea stays in Ukraine, it means Ukraine can’t join NATO. This is a positive for Russia, because it makes it easier to lean on Ukraine in the future, especially if Kiev gets a little too buddy-buddy with Europe.
A Crimean vote on whether or not to join Russia is now scheduled for March 16. If Crimeans vote in favor of it, there’s a chance the region could become a “frozen territory,” typically the result of a cease-fire announcement during hostilities, which freezes boundaries to match areas of military control. Frozen countries are usually considered by much of the world to be under military occupation, and few such zones ever receive formal diplomatic recognition as independent states. This is what happened in the aftermath of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, which gave birth to the Republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those zones are recognized as countries by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, Tuvalu, and no one else—aside, of course, from other frozen states.
The frozen-state scenario would put the West in a delicate position. If the West were to recognize Crimean independence, it would open the gates for a closer Ukraine-NATO relationship, thanks to Sevastopol no longer being an issue. But it would do so at the risk of ticking off Ukrainians by legitimizing Crimea’s secession. If the West were to make a stand and refuse to recognize what will inevitably be billed as Crimea's “legitimate democratic vote of determination” for independence, it would do so at the risk of putting a legal barrier between itself and Ukraine, thanks to Sevastopol still being an issue.
In addition, if the West recognizes Crimea, it creates a more complex situation regarding diplomatic recognition of all the other frozen territories that have been hatched out of Russian military intervention: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. This could serve to help usher in a new 21st Century form of conflict, in which moving a border via invasion is highly discouraged, but chipping off a chunk of a country in the name of self-determination is fairly acceptable. That debate will be very relevant as the international community decides how to move forward with ethnic separatists following the creation of new countries like East Timor and South Sudan.
When it comes down to it, the few diplomatic carrots that the West is willing to offer or withhold from Russia have only as much value as Putin is willing to assign them. His ability to not give a shit exceeds the West's capacity to do anything he gives a shit about. The fact is that Russia cares a lot more about Crimea than anybody else does—except for Ukraine.
And that's not to mention the two cards Putin has yet to play. The first: He could cripple the already fragile European economy. Europe is heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil to keep the lights on, and Putin can cut it off—about 40 percent of Europe’s oil and gas supply—with a phone call. The global economic consequences from that would be ugly.
The second: Efforts to get Bashar Assad to come to heel and to convince Iran to ditch its nuclear-weapons program are basically doomed without Putin’s help (though, to be fair, the prospects for both of these negotiations are pretty grim anyway). Without any Russian support, the US would probably have to chalk both efforts up as losses.
And so the question becomes whether the West cares more about a worldwide economic downturn, Syrian chemical weapons, and Iranian nukes—or about an historically prickly peninsula in the Black Sea full of people who, however misguidedly, sound like they'd rather be Russians anyway.
Many in the West have been making some grievous miscalculations in framing these events. Wonk chatter has been about preventing further escalation, reducing tensions, and providing an “off-ramp” allowing Putin to back down. Some talking heads have tried to stuff these events into a traditional nation-vs.-nation, Cold War mold. Others have tried to attribute the ineffectiveness of the Western response to the fact that Putin is insane. These approaches do little but make Westerners feel better about themselves.
The reality is that Crimea is all but a done deal. Putin saw something he wanted and an opportunity to take it. So he sent in troops and set about establishing that new reality on the ground. The bulk of negotiations in the coming days and weeks will involve Western officials trying to prove that Russia hasn’t gotten the better of them—the “compromise” reached will be almost exactly what Putin wanted all along, in the guise of a diplomatic victory preventing an armed conflict—so they can try to preserve Western credibility. They know they'll need it for the next crisis that comes along.