Seemingly lost amidst the confused outrage emanating from more hawkish quarters of America's political class is a relatively straightforward explanation for Russian President Vladimir Putin's behavior with respect to Crimea and the larger Ukrainian situation: Russia's leader defines the maintenance of influence over Ukraine and control (whether de jure or de facto) of Crimea as vital national interests. Therefore (unsurprisingly) Putin -- or any Russian leader committed to maintaining Russia's status as a great power -- considers the use of military force to maintain or defend those interests as appropriate means of statecraft.
Similarly, despite the repetition of the cartoonish claim, Putin has not been emboldened to take Crimea and threaten western-leaning leaders in Kiev because of the perceived weakness of the United States or its president, Barack Obama. Then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev exhibited scant concern about the reaction of the United States (or President George W. Bush) or its NATO partners to Russia's intervention in Georgia in 2008. Medvedev, Putin and a significant segment of Russian elite resent NATO's expansion and fear further encroachment into Russia's "near abroad," which was part of the Soviet bloc and historically within Imperial Russia's sphere of interest. And just as Russia seemed hostile and intransigent then in protecting its perceived vital interests, we should expect that it will be similarly difficult moving forward, which could negatively impact larger U.S.-Russia relations without deft diplomacy.
The current situation is obviously frustrating. The Obama administration has worked hard and made painstaking efforts to constructively engage Russia in critical diplomatic negotiations over Iran and Syria. It is not simply that Russia's recent actions have undermined the so-called "Reset" with Moscow, launched under Secretary Clinton, but that more tangible issue-based cooperation has been achieved by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov. In fact, the whole notion of the "Reset," and its equally sophomoric criticism arising from administration opponents, obscures the larger reality that U.S.-Russia relations will always be driven by the respective national interests and objectives of the two states. On certain issues, there may indeed be room for significant cooperation, as we have seen recently in the cases of Syria's chemical weapons and the Iranian nuclear program. However, on questions of Russia's influence in its "near abroad," it is simply unrealistic to expect anything but staunch opposition to anything that undermines Moscow's perceived leverage in the region.
None of this is to excuse the Russian use of force in Crimea and the open threat of further intervention in Eastern Ukraine. The claim of safeguarding the rights of ethnic Russians is fairly weak, but it is also difficult for the United States to embrace a purely moralistic or ethical diplomatic stance. Incompetence, outlandish corruption, and responsibility for excessive repressive violence aside, Viktor Yanukovych was the legally elected president of Ukraine. Overt involvement by European Union and U.S. diplomatic envoys in the Maidan protests may have been unwise in retrospect. It was a clear case of foreign intervention in the domestic affairs of another state and, in the view of Putin and Russian elites, it smacked of meddling within Russia's traditional sphere of influence.
Rather than wasting time on inflammatory rhetoric, incessant moralizing, or unrealistic and inappropriate threats that cannot ever be credibly executed, the United States should focus its efforts on first maintaining a strong, unified European coalition, and then working to engage other international partners to press Russia to desist from further threats or actions against Ukraine and to resolve the current standoff in Crimea. To that specific end, a referendum on Crimea's status may indeed be a viable solution, but such a process should take place under the auspices of the international community and absent the coercive threat of Russian troops on the ground. Without an objectively "fair and free" referendum, however, the U.S. and its partners should certainly withhold recognition of any results of a sham "vote" and press for sanctions on Russia. In the interim, the threat of a comprehensive U.S.-EU sanctions regime spurred by a fraudulent Crimean vote could bring Russia back to the bargaining table.
Moving beyond the question of Crimea, any permanent diplomatic settlement between Russia and the West on Ukraine will likely involve some limits (perhaps formal) on future NATO expansion. Guarantees to forego Ukrainian or Georgian accession to the alliance may be necessary to adequately address Russian fears concerning Ukraine's foreign policy under more liberal, European-leaning leaders. In return, perhaps Ukrainian ties to the EU could be strengthened without interference from Moscow. These types of complex and delicate discussions will likely take time, and considerable effort but so long as Ukraine's political future remains uncertain, Russia's relations with the West will remain deeply troubled.