Amid the talk of war, two small news items passed mostly unnoticed Monday. But for anyone curious about the Kremlin's long-term plans for Crimea, the flashpoint for what may be the biggest geopolitical standoff in a generation, keep reading.
First, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered the construction of a long-mooted $3-billion bridge that would link Crimea to Russia over the 3-mile-wide Strait of Kerch. A land bridge to the peninsula already exists – via Ukrainian territory. Second, Crimea's new Russian-engineered government will explore whether to synchronize its timezone with Moscow's, ending a two-hour difference introduced when Kiev set the clocks to European time.
Taken together, neither move is binding. But the direction is clear: Ukraine will almost certainly emerge from its crisis without full control over this mountainous territory of 2 million people. And while President Vladimir Putin said today that Moscow has "no intention" to pursue outright annexation, a decoupling from Ukraine plays into Russia's hands.
In his press conference, Mr. Putin left open the option that Crimeans themselves might vote for full independence or greatly ramped-up autonomy from Kiev via a referendum, and he implied that Russia would recognize the result.
Russia has done this before, in the wake of its 2008 war with Georgia, when it recognized two breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. For Moscow, detaching those territories served to both punish Georgia's pro-European government and to demonstrate that the West was loath to interfere in an armed quarrel in Russia's backyard.
The two Georgian provinces are backwaters with few benefits. But Crimea is another story. An emotional focal point of Russian history, mostly inhabited by ethnic Russians, the Crimean city of Sevastopol is home to Russia's strategically important Black Sea Fleet. An independent Crimea would undoubtedly simplify Moscow's recurrent difficulties in renewing its lease on Sevastopol, last negotiated with deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2010.
But there may be yet another critical dimension to Russia's 2008 dismembering of Georgia and its current strategy in Crimea. Under NATO's rules, members must have full control over their sovereign territories, something that neither Georgia nor, it seems, Ukraine can achieve.
Indeed, Russia's contingency plans for a Crimea takeover could have been drawn up by the Russian Defense Ministry back in 2008, when then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, wanted to put Ukraine on a fast track to NATO membership. At the time, the Russian media was full of dire talk that Ukraine's NATO accession represented a "red line" that Moscow would never tolerate. The talk abated after NATO itself temporarily shelved Ukraine's application later that year.
Russian opposition to Ukraine's NATO bid was just one factor; another was lukewarm support at home. Volodymyr Paniotto, head of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, Ukraine's leading pollster, says about 60 percent of Ukrainians opposed NATO accession in 2008 surveys. Support was much higher among Ukraine's youth – about 20 percent opposed joining the alliance – and in the more nationalistic western regions of Ukraine.
"Now, I believe Ukrainians are in shock, and the split of opinions in the regions is probably much sharper," Mr. Paniotto says.
Mr. Yanukovych, who was elected in 2010, had seemingly laid the issue to rest by passing a law affirming Ukraine's non-aligned status.
But the abrupt downfall of the Moscow-friendly Yanukovych under pressure from political forces mainly based in western regions stunned the Kremlin. Experts say that Russian leaders may have concluded that Kiev's new government – which was quickly recognized by Western countries – was capable of taking irreversible steps.
"These new people in Kiev made their intentions clear, and the NATO countries actively supported them," says Kiril Frolov, an expert with the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "There was a putsch in Kiev, and Russia took it as an immediate threat."