Now that Crimean voters have overwhelmingly backed a union with Russia—not exactly shocking, given that there wasn’t even an option on the ballot for those favoring the status quo—the annexation of the peninsula seems to be all but accomplished.
The region plans to formally apply to join Russia today, and President Vladimir Putin has said he will respect the result. (Update, March 17, 2014: Vladimir Putin's government has now formally recognized Crimea as an independent state.) The EU and U.S. have announced travel bans and asset freezes against a number of senior officials in response to the vote. Daniel Drezner has a good explanation of why this is probably worth doing, even though it’s unlikely to push Russia to relinquish territory it now effectively controls. In all likelihood, Crimea’s six decades as a part of Ukraine have now come to an end, whether or not the rest of the world recognizes it.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean the crisis is over. Attention is now shifting to eastern Ukraine, where there are some signs that Russia might look to expand its mandate to “protect” Russian speakers.
Large pro-Russian demonstrations have been held with protesters storming government buildings in Donetsk, Kharkiv, and other eastern cities where Russian speakers are a majority. Unrecognized “referendums” have been held in some cities, and Ukrainian-language books have been burned in some places.
Meanwhile, just before the referendum, Russian forces moved to seize a natural gas plant outside the Crimean border. As Mary Mycio explained in Slate a couple of weeks ago, while Crimea may be culturally distinct, it’s extremely economically dependent on mainland Ukraine. For this reason, the New Republic’s Julia Ioffe predicts that Russia is likely to expand its land grab “just north and east of Perekop,” the narrow isthmus that connects Crimea to the mainland. “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?” she writes.
There are widespread rumors of Russia stirring up secessionist sentiment in eastern Ukraine, including busing in demonstrators. U.S. officials suggest to the Daily Beast that Russian special forces may be involved.
For what it’s worth, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says his country has “no plans” to send troops into eastern Ukraine. The defense ministries of Ukraine and Russia have also agreed on a truce until March 21.
If I had to guess, a full Russian military invasion of eastern Ukraine still seems unlikely. Vladimir Putin seems to made a correct assumption that he could seize Crimea and get away with it. But the factors that made the Crimea operation so quick and bloodless aren’t present in the rest of the country, which is larger, less geographically isolated, more ethnically heterogeneous, and doesn’t have the same historical links to Russia. Russia’s economy took a hit over Crimea, but the financial markets, at least, now seem to have accepted the current state of affairs.
Putin got away with one, but going further would almost surely lead to war and raise the risks for his government significantly.
But of course, the Crimea operation didn’t appear to have been planned out too far in advance either. Russia is clearly keeping its options open for the rest of Ukraine, and it seems like it wouldn’t take much to turn this into a much larger international crisis.