Russian president Vladimir Putin’s strategy seems to be not to actually invade Ukraine, as the West fears, but to assert dominance through levers already on the ground, as he did with Crimea. Putin’s apparent preference is for Ukraine to split into federated states with independent foreign policies prior to the presidential election—allowing the leaders of some of them to form subservient relationships with Russia.
If so, he is following the playbook he used to annex Crimea last month. There, he didn’t so much invade following the Feb. 22 ouster of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, as lay an ambush. First, he put thousands of Russian troops on maneuver just over the border in Russia proper. With outside eyes focused on them, Russian troops already based in Crimea as part of the Black Sea fleet donned uniforms without insignia, and took over the peninsula. On March 16, Crimeans voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia.