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
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