Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an accession treaty March 18 between Crimea and the Russian Federation, taking a vital next step toward the annexation of Crimea and further raising the stakes in the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
There are still several steps for Russia's annexation of Crimea to become official. The Russian Constitutional Court must verify the treaty, and then both houses of the Russian parliament, the Duma and the Federation Council, must vote on it. Deliberations are currently scheduled for March 21. After the vote, a transitional period would be set for Crimea's integration into Russia's legal, economic and financial systems, including the incorporation of the ruble as Crimea's currency. But it appears probable that formal annexation will take place by the end of the week.
Russia had hinted that it could delay moving on Crimea's annexation if the West showed willingness to compromise on its position regarding the new Ukrainian government. However, the European Union and United States held firm on the legitimacy of the government. They have pushed for Ukraine to be further integrated into EU and Western structures, with Ukraine expected to sign the political sections of the EU association agreement on March 21. The United States and European Union also passed sanctions against certain Russian and Ukrainian political and security officials March 17, and both said stronger sanctions could come later in the week.
The West cannot stop Crimea's annexation through sanctions, as Putin's latest move has shown. Russia had floated proposals on a "contact group" to negotiate over the future structure of the Ukrainian government, but the West and Ukraine rejected this proposal, which Kiev said was akin to an ultimatum. As a result, Russia has made clear that it will move forward with the annexation of Crimea, although Putin did say in his March 18 speech that there are no plans to try to divide Ukraine further.
The West will now push for stronger sanctions against Russia and the further integration of Ukraine into the West, though the potential effectiveness of both objectives remains limited. In the meantime, Russia will focus on discrediting the Ukrainian government, which it still deems illegitimate. Moscow could look for leverage in other places as well, including strengthening ties with Iran or incorporating other breakaway territories such as Moldova's Transdniestria and Georgia's Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There is the potential for a significant escalation between Russia and the West to go far beyond Ukraine.