Over the past two weeks, the international community has seen the situation in Ukraine move from bad to worse as it devolves into violence and chaos. Russian-supported separatists are pitted against the European backed interim government in what seems to be rapidly escalating into a civil war that threatens to tear the country apart.
This violence easily overshadowed two crucial political moves Putin made that clearly signaled his intent to solidify Crimea as a Russian entity and reassert Russia's power over Ukraine. The first was his trip to Crimea on Friday, May 9th, which is Victory Day in Russia. Victory Day pays tribute to the Soviet defeat of the Nazis during WWII and is the single biggest holiday in Russia – the whole country celebrates and glorifies Russian power and strength. Putin purposefully chose to observe this holiday in Crimea to show that it is undoubtedly an integral part of Russia and that the referendum of March 16th was valid.
His second move was minting a new commemorative coin as part of a series naming himself “The Gatherer of Russian Lands.” This coin showed his face on the front and Crimea on the back, labeled as the Russian Federation’s Republic of Crimea. This coin will forever serve as a commemoration of the Russian adoption of the republic and as a symbol of their ownership of Crimea.
Both of these moves are just part of a long game that Putin has the patience to craft and play. While he may have no grand plan, Putin’s end goal is to see Russia regain its status as an international power. An integral part of this is recapturing influence over the territories it lost with the fall of the Soviet Union. To execute this plan, it is not necessary that Russia invades Ukraine even to "protect its citizens." Instead, Putin is working behind the scenes, weakening the Ukrainian economy to undermine the new leadership and supporting separatists in the East. Through these select, covert moves, Putin is keeping his options open so he can play out his game and achieve the best outcome for Russian power on the world stage.