Many believe that Putin intends to do with eastern Ukraine what he did with Crimea: annex it to Russia. Putin, though, may well prefer the “federal solution” that he has proposed that would leave Ukraine (shorn of Crimea) intact, but devolve power from the central government to its regions. Here’s why:
If Russia annexes eastern Ukraine, what remains of Ukraine is likely to be even more anti-Russian than it is now and seek to join NATO—something Putin does not want. Putin, though, does not want to have to annex all Ukraine in order to prevent any of it from joining NATO. Attempting to occupy such a huge country where much of the population is hostile to Russia would undoubtedly prove difficult and costly for Russia. Indeed, even annexing eastern Ukraine could prove to be so.
A “federal solution” similar to the one prevailing in Bosnia, however, could alleviate these difficulties. While Ukraine, like Bosnia, would be an independent country with a pro-Western government, the more Russified eastern Ukraine would play a similar role to that now being played by the predominantly Serbian “Republika Srpska” region within Bosnia. Just as Republika Srpska is largely autonomous from the central Bosnian government in Sarajevo and coordinates closely with its eastern neighbor Serbia, eastern Ukraine would be largely autonomous from the central Ukrainian government in Kiev and coordinate closely with its eastern neighbor Russia.
Further, just as Republika Srpska has been able to veto Sarajevo’s ambition to join NATO, Putin may well anticipate that eastern Ukraine would veto Kiev’s ambition to do so. Putin, then, could prevent that part of Ukraine controlled by Kiev from joining NATO without actually having to occupy it. And if NATO can accept such a situation in Bosnia which is so close to the center of Europe, Putin may reason that NATO will do likewise in Ukraine on its eastern edge.
NATO, of course, will not want to do this. Putin, though, may calculate that it will have no other realistic choice.