Crimea: The Motives
What drove the decision to annex Crimea? The sequence of events began with the Euromaidan protest against Yanukovich’s decision not to sign the EU association agreement, and for Russia took a serious turn for the worse when Yanukovich’s government was replaced by a determinedly pro-Western one. There was a strong desire to prevent Ukraine formally aligning itself with the West, whether the EU or NATO. Ukraine remaining outside Russia’s economic integration project, the Eurasian Economic Union, would be a major blow. Another major concern was the status of Sevastopol in a Ukraine governed by pro-Western and indeed radically antiRussian forces. For a regime determined to raise its geostrategic status globally and particularly in the region, no threat to its military presence in the Black Sea could be countenanced (Allison 2014, pp. 1273-1274).
Putin subsequently claimed that Russia’s actions were responses to requests from the residents of Crimea for protection from “specific and tangible threats” (en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/20796). His vague claims were made in the context of persistent Russian propaganda highlighting the violent repression of Russian speakers on Ukrainian territory, the implication being that such behavior was taking place in Crimea. There is too little evidence of that being so to take this justification seriously (Allison 2014, p. 1296).
Later still Putin justified the annexation in terms of the deep historical importance of Crimea for the Russian people (through the claimed baptism of Vladimir, the founding prince of the Kiev state, on Crimean territory) and the righting of a historical wrong (kremlin.ru/events/ president/news/47173). While one might question the veracity of Putin’s claims and whether, even if true, they would justify seizing the territory of another state, he nevertheless expressed sentiments widely held within Russia, and it might well be the case that they drove his own personal approach.
Some argue that because of those popular sentiments, Putin was able to use the annexation of Crimea to restore flagging popularity at home. As part of a general campaign to arouse patriotic enthusiasm by “getting
Russia off her knees,” the dramatic seizure of “sacred soil” increased his poll ratings (Levinson 2015).