The annexation of Crimea is now what Putin calls “an accomplished fact.” It won’t be undone for a long time, if ever. The referendum was illegal under Ukrainian and international law and was held in far from free circumstances, but the result probably reflected the majority will. More to the point, the U.S. and Europe won’t risk the effort to reverse the annexation, because they have minimal interests in Crimea, while Russia, with great interests, will risk almost anything to keep it. But the fate of the rest of Ukraine and of the other former Soviet republics, along with the future of relations between Russia and the West, remains very much unresolved. Any American policy needs to begin with an understanding of what the crisis is and what it isn’t.
Ukraine is not Czechoslovakia. For some American hawks, the year is always 1938, and Munich and appeasement are routinely invoked whenever there’s an act of aggression anywhere in the world. John McCain and Hillary Clinton both pointed to the superficial analogy between Crimea and the Sudetenland—annexation in the name of ethnic reunification. Before the referendum, pro-Ukrainian protesters in Kiev held up signs depicting Putin with Hitler’s black bangs and toothbrush mustache. All this inflates Putin’s importance far beyond his deserts. He may want Russia to lead a new Eurasian Union, but he doesn’t dream of world conquest; Russia has plenty of nuclear weapons, but its conventional military forces are ill prepared for a long occupation of Ukraine.