Today Vladimir Putin announced he will pull back Russian troops from the Ukrainian border. However, The White House stated that it has yet to see these words produce any meaningful action:
A White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters traveling with President Obama aboard Air Force One that while the United States would welcome a Russian military pullback from the Ukraine border region, “there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place.”
Regardless, this message from Putin has to be a relief for the Obama administration, as the options to respond to Russia's aggressive maneuvers were limited at best. Narrow sanctions against high-profile individuals close to Putin had already been levied, and any wider sanctions would have risked economic damage not only to Russia, but all nations dependent on Gazprom exports. Any military options are fraught with peril at best.
As of now, Putin emerges from this imbroglio a big winner. He was able to claim Crimea and return it to Russia without any bloodshed, and was also able to destabilize the efforts of pro-Western Ukrainians to move away from Russia's embrace. Putin may have realized he pushed as far as he could, gained Crimea with its important military strategic value, and is now content to allow Ukraine to sort out its mess.
However, he's still using his influence to push Ukraine towards a federalist solution that allows southeastern Ukraine to gain some measure of autonomy:
Citing negotiations between Ukrainian separatists and the interim government in Kiev, Mr. Putin also said he was appealing “to representatives of southeast Ukraine and supporters of federalization to hold off the referendum scheduled for May 11, in order to give this dialogue the conditions it needs to have a chance.
Perhaps his long-term play is to force a referendum in which southeastern Ukrainians vote (or appear to vote) for reunification with Russia. Such a strategy requires long-term thinking, and Putin certainly has that.
Putin's actions seem to have caught President Obama off-guard. To some extent that is unsurprising, as instability and aggressive maneuvering will continue to have adverse effects on an already moribund Russian economy. But that assumes that Putin's goals are simply economic. Putin desires more than just a prosperous Russia; he wants a glorious Russia that has achieved the influence, power, prestige, and territory that the Soviet Union had.
The recent Ukrainian crisis has proven a fascinating (if terrifying) case for students of international relations. President Obama was largely unable to present any meaningful consequences for Putin. This perhaps confirms what is becoming more apparent: The world is no longer unipolar and it may never have been so. Without a doubt, China has been watching Putin's actions, and it's not hard to imagine the Senkaku (or Diaoyus, as China refers to them) Islands becoming more tempting for China to seize. Of course, President Obama recently reaffirmed the American commitment to defending those islands as part of Japan, but in a world where Syria's red lines mean nothing and Putin has been able to act unilaterally in Crimea and Ukraine, what evidence is there that the U.S. would make good on its promises?
I'm not sure there are any good answers here. Perhaps we need to become more comfortable with a world where the U.S. would be both unwise and unable to project its will across the globe.
Beyond that, crises such as these remind us that nation-states still matter. Indeed, they are the most important actors on the international stage. Social movements, bottom-up transitions, and economic changes all contribute to the vast ocean that is international relations, but nation-states remain the ships that carry us through those waters.