On Saturday, the two-week anniversary of the authorization, the Russian foreign ministry was already laying the foundations for such a seizure, saying that it was being flooded with requests from citizens across eastern Ukraine, asking the Russians for protection against the western Ukrainian fascists.
But that’s just the pretext, not the reason. When Putin asked for and got his authorization, I wrote that, in predicting Russia’s actions these days, pessimism always wins. But, in this case, it isn’t just simple nastiness that’s going to drive this. For the first time in this manufactured crisis, Putin is going to be acting out of sheer pragmatism and necessity.
So let’s say the inevitable happens today and Crimea votes to enfold itself in the Russian Federation’s embrace. But what happens next? And what happens if, as is quite likely, Kiev cuts newly-Russian Crimea off from gas, electricity, and water, which Crimea has none of on its own? How will Moscow, the new owner, supply its latest acquisition with the necessities?
If you’re Russia, do you really want to ferry the necessities across the bay, or build an expensive bridge, or lay down expensive new pipelines? Wouldn’t you rather use pre-existing land routes (and pipelines)? Wouldn’t it just be easier to take the land just north and east of Perekop and the Swiss cheese area, now that you’ve already put in the effort to massively destabilize it? And while you’re there, wouldn’t you want to just take the entire Ukrainian east, the parts with the coal and the pipe-making plants and the industry? You know, since you already have permission?Last night's rumoured clash between Russian and Ukrainian troops just outside Crimea's current borders might lend substance to these suspicions.
Putin and his friends might decide that, if they are going to take economic pain from Western sanctions anyway, they'll grab as much land as they can before the opposition are ready for them.
It's worth remembering the comments made after the 2008 South Ossetia War by Dmitry Rogozin*, now Russian deputy prime minister, then Russia's ambassador to NATO:
Everyone here [in Brussels] understands what we did, when we carried out such a large-scale operation and literally in three days not only shattered the Georgian army built on the money and under the leadership of the USA but stopped any opportunity for a third country to intervene quickly. This is not just a very serious military, psychological and moral victory for Russia – it is a gauntlet openly thrown down to the global leader of the modern world.On the other hand, unlike Crimea, an invasion of eastern Ukraine would most likely be a bloodbath. So it's wait and see.
*As a diplomat Rogozin gained notoriety for his use of undiplomatic language. He is on Twitter here. He doesn't comment much, but his latest tweet (made today) refers to Ukraine's ambassador to Moldova as a "son of a bitch".