Had Putin not taken Crimea, he would have lost both Crimea and Ukraine. You also cannot lose something you don’t have…
I keep hearing this phrase a lot in variations: “By taking Crimea, Putin made enemies of the Ukrainian people, and lost Ukraine forever.”
This is a very poor analysis of events. The pro-Russian position in Ukraine lost when the Euromaidan has won. The Maidan was a violent coup which was conducted by anti-Russian forces and in favour of a pro-Western orientation. Had Russia not made the decision to take Crimea, Ukraine would now be pro-Western and Russian military presence in Crimea would be unwelcome. Hence, for Russia, this was a question of capitulation and expulsion from Crimea, and this was totally unacceptable.
I also do not buy into the claim that Russian actions spurned the conflict. Had Russia not acted, the repressions against anti-Maidan would have come regardless. The Maidan regime would need to consolidate and assert its authority. It would have just been a further humiliation for Russia. Russia’s inaction is still blamed by many for the general loss incurred by the Antimaidan in 2014.
The idea that Putin lost Ukraine presupposes that Russia had some form of firm control over that country. But I remember Yanukovych pursuing relations with the EU, and repressing pro-Russian activists such as the Odessa politician, Igor Markov. Russia barely had influence over the Party of Regions, let alone the media and the oligarchs in Ukraine. We can, of course, argue that Russia should have done more in way of exerting influence over Ukraine before 2014 but that would just throw us into meaningless and frustrating speculation. The fact stands that Ukraine was an independent country since 1991, and her independent evolution culminated in the events of 2014.
Today, Russia has Crimea and Ukraine has bezviz, tomos, and hate. Russia does not need this kind of Ukraine.