Riot police guard the prosecutor's office in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk, minutes before pro-Russia demonstrators occupied the building. Photographer: Marc Champion/Bloomberg News
Riot police guard the prosecutor's office in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk, minutes before pro-Russia demonstrators occupied the building. Photographer: Marc Champion/Bloomberg News

There is a grim logic to today’s shotgun referendum in Crimea that leads toward an expansion of Russia’s land grab into eastern and southern Ukraine.

Exit polls suggest a massive 93 percent of the region's voters were in favor of joining Russia, a poll on Crimea’s future that was colored by armed intimidation, a crackdown on opposition media and a nine-day excuse for a campaign. It seems all too likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin, riding a wave of popular support at home for returning territory perceived to be historically Russian, will follow through by annexing the peninsula.

Standoff in Ukraine

On its own, however, Russia’s seizure of Crimea would risk unifying the rest of Ukraine against Russian aggression -- and in favor of integration with the European Union. In gaining Crimea, Putin might lose the bigger prize: turning Ukraine into the real country that in 2008 he told former U.S. President George W. Bush it wasn’t. That is something he will want to prevent.

In Crimea, Putin has kept his options open and Western leaders off balance with his otherwise absurd insistence that the Russian troops on the ground are not Russian. Even now, he could conceivably stop short of annexation. He seemed to change his mind as things progressed: The referendum date was changed twice in the space of a week, and giving Crimeans the option of joining Russia was added to the ballot only 10 days before the vote.

A similar subterfuge with murky final goals is under way here in Donetsk and other parts of eastern Ukraine, where Russian “tourists” from across the border have joined pro-Russia demonstrations. On Thursday night in Donetsk, a pro-Ukraine activist was stabbed to death when pro-Russians broke through a police cordon that separated opposing demonstrations. On Friday night in Kharkiv, two demonstrators in a pro-Russian crowd were killed when they threw Molotov cocktails into the office of Ukrainian ultranationalists, who responded with shotguns. A policeman was also badly wounded.

As Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, continue to insist on their duty to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine from violence and chaos, these engineered deaths are providing a potential casus belli.

Pro-Ukrainians have called off rallies in Donetsk and Kharkiv to remove targets for provocations. Today, however, several thousand pro-Russia protesters marched on the prosecutor’s office in Donetsk, chanting “Ross-i-ya” and “Donetsk in Russia.” They pushed past riot police, who put up little resistance, occupied the building and raised the Russian tricolor. Then they moved on to occupy the local headquarters of the security service. What they will do next is unclear, but each event tempts the authorities in Kiev to respond and creates scope for violence.

“We want Russian troops. We’re waiting for them,” said Lyudmila, a 40-year-old market trader who declined to give her surname, as did others in the crowd, citing fear of retribution by the “fascists” from Kiev. She and others talked of their anger at the way the “fascists” had seized power in Kiev, and of their religious and cultural bonds to Russia.

“If we could have the same security here that they have in Crimea, a majority would vote to join Russia,” Lyudmila said. While that could become true, a straw poll of ordinary residents in central Donetsk suggests it isn’t yet.

Should Putin choose to escalate by moving troops into Ukraine beyond Crimea, even Germany has pledged to hit Russia with painful sanctions. This would damage the economy seriously: Former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has forecast $50 billion in capital flight per quarter this year, “in a mild scenario.”

And yet, sanctions too can add to the logic of escalation. Serious economic sanctions would, as the most fervent Soviet die-hards and Russian nationalists have been hoping ever since the 1990s, create a full break with the West and return Russia’s economy to a less extreme version of its Soviet-era isolation -- or, in their view, self-sufficiency. Sanctions would also force corrupt businessmen either to repatriate their ill-gotten gains or flee the country. The “liberals” who have, according to conservatives, held the country ransom for private gain since the collapse of the Soviet Union and prevented Russia’s return to greatness would be routed.

The West would then have done its worst, while proving that it is unwilling to go to war with Russia in order to prevent Putin from sending troops into his non-NATO neighbors. Any future land grabs would incur smaller additional costs for Russia.

Such a gathering of Russian lands is a 19th-century fantasy that would condemn Russians to relative penury in the 21st. The damage already inflicted on the country’s currency and stock markets, and Russia’s 13-to-1 isolation in a United Nations Security Council vote on Crimea (China abstained), demonstrate the threat. And yet Putin appears willing to accept a substantial economic cost.

There are a few markers to watch in gauging Russia’s intentions. One of them is military. In addition to large-scale military exercises, Russian helicopters yesterday dropped troops just over Crimea’s border with the rest of Ukraine to secure a natural gas facility. This may have doubled as a test of Ukraine’s defenses and responsiveness. More exercises and probes of this kind would be one indicator.

A continued expansion of provocations in eastern Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv, Dontesk, Lugansk and Odessa would be a second. The same opinion polls that demonstrate Russians' desire to reclaim Crimea show a clear majority opposed to going to war in Ukraine. More dramatic incidents in which Russian speakers in Ukraine are portrayed as in mortal danger would help to make that case.

Within Russia, a sustained campaign of propaganda referring back to World War II -- known to Russians as the Great Patriotic War -- would also be a sign. What in Ukraine and the Baltic states are understood as liberation struggles are to many Russians offensive, because they put in question the narrative in which the Soviet armies liberated these countries from Nazi Germany. This drip feed of hate has already begun on Russia’s tightly controlled television channels.

None of this proves that Putin has made up his mind whether to invade eastern Ukraine, or even that he will formally annex Crimea. He may also be using fear of invasion to force the authorities in Kiev, and their U.S. and European backers, to cave to Russian demands. Yet as with Crimea, amid the uncertainties, events are creating their own momentum.

“We would want to be sure we are welcomed with flowers” before annexing any territory in eastern Ukraine, Kremlin analyst Sergei Markov told Bloomberg News yesterday. Arrangements already appear to be being made.

(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcChampion1.)

To contact the writer of this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.