Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014 was the most consequential decision of his 16 years in power. By annexing a neighboring country’s territory by force, Putin overturned in a single stroke the assumptions on which the post–Cold War European order had rested.
The question of why Putin took this step is of more than historical interest. Understanding his motives for occupying and annexing Crimea is crucial to assessing whether he will make similar choices in the future—for example, sending troops to “liberate” ethnic Russians in the Baltic states—just as it is key to determining what measures the West might take to deter such actions.
Three plausible interpretations of Putin’s move have emerged. The first—call it “Putin as defender”—is that the Crimean operation was a response to the threat of NATO’s further expansion along Russia’s western border. By this logic, Putin seized the peninsula to prevent two dangerous possibilities: first, that Ukraine’s new government might join NATO, and second, that Kiev might evict Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from its long-standing base in Sevastopol.
A second interpretation—call it “Putin as imperialist”—casts the annexation of Crimea as part of a Russian project to gradually recapture the former territories of the Soviet Union. Putin never accepted the loss of Russian prestige that followed the end of the Cold War, this argument suggests, and he is determined to restore it, in part by expanding Russia’s borders.
A third explanation—“Putin as improviser”—rejects such broader designs and presents the annexation as a hastily conceived response to the unforeseen fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The occupation and annexation of Crimea, in this view, was an impulsive decision that Putin stumbled into rather than the careful move of a strategist with geopolitical ambitions.
Over the past two years, Putin has appeared to lend support to all three interpretations. He has suggested that Ukraine’s accession to