Empires have spilled blood and spent treasure for control of Crimea for more than 2,500 years, ever since the ancient Greeks first made it their colony. It took Russian President Vladimir Putin less than three weeks–and not a single shot fired in anger–to wrest the peninsula from Ukraine. On March 18, two days after a referendum showed that an overwhelming majority of Crimeans wanted to be annexed by Russia, Putin signed a decree formalizing the arrangement. The U.S. and its European allies barely had time to prepare a round of mild sanctions–mainly travel restrictions and asset freezes for a handful of officials–which the master of the Kremlin shrugged off.
For Putin, the punishment pales before the political prize. The annexation of Crimea has pushed his popularity higher than it’s been in three years–to a stunning 72% in two nationwide polls, up almost 10% since the invasion of Crimea began. Roughly the same percentage of respondents said at the start of February that they did not want Russia to intervene at all in Ukraine’s internal affairs. But for Russians, the conquest of Crimea was not seen as an intervention. It felt like a rightful return to the status of empire that Russia had lost after the fall of the Soviet Union. Even for some of Putin’s harshest critics, achieving that is worth just about any rupture in relations with the West.
Just ask Mikhail Gorbachev. In an interview on the eve of Crimea’s annexation, the last leader of the USSR–the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is credited with ending the Cold War–declared that Putin should not stop at Crimea. All of southern Ukraine, Gorbachev said, is Moscow’s rightful dominion. “In essence, in history, it’s just like Crimea,” he told a Russian news website. “Its population is Russian. It was civilized by Russians.” And with tens of thousands of Russian troops still massed at Ukraine’s eastern border, Putin may yet decide to expand his landgrab.
As long as he can follow the Crimean formula–a bloodless and surgical takeover–even his enemies in Russia will applaud. Maria Baronova is a case in point. Last year she stood trial in Moscow for “inciting mass unrest.” Her crime? Organizing a protest against Putin on the eve of his third presidential inauguration. Few Putin critics are more outspoken, but on Crimea, Baronova is fully behind her President. Her generation of savvy, liberal urbanites suffered through the Soviet loss of empire when they were just coming into their own, and Baronova remembers it as “a palpable, physical discomfort, a sense of helplessness in knowing that our state can do nothing to counter the will of the West.”
The most painful object lesson for them was NATO’s intervention in the war in Kosovo in 1999, when Russia was forced to watch Serbia, a nation with deep religious and cultural ties to the Russians, bombed by Western warplanes and then, after a plebiscite backed by the West, lose control of Kosovo. “Watching that gave us a deep inferiority complex,” says Baronova.
Some of her older friends in Moscow even volunteered to go fight in Bosnia back then. “It was a mad time,” says Mark Feygin, who was in his early 20s when he went to Bosnia to fight alongside the Serbs in 1993. “Everything was falling apart–the Soviet Union, everything we knew–and our country was in no condition to help our brothers. So we went and did what we could.” Twenty years later, Feygin has become one of Russia’s most prominent civil rights lawyers; he defended the activists of Pussy Riot when three of them were put on trial in 2012 for protesting against Putin. But Feygin, too, supports the return of Crimea to Russia. “It really is a historical injustice that Crimea was given to Ukraine like some kind of toy,” he says.
That gift was made in 1954 on the whim of Nikita Khrushchev, who was then the leader of the Soviet Union. He decided to take Crimea away from Russia and transfer it to Ukraine at a time when the placement of their borders didn’t really matter. (Legend has it that Khrushchev was drunk when he signed the papers.) All three were part of the Soviet Union, whose collapse seemed unthinkable. But when it all broke apart in 1991, Crimea and its majority-Russian population found themselves in what felt like a foreign land. Ukrainian nationalism was on the rise, and a popular movement in Crimea pleaded for Moscow to take it back in the early 1990s. Those appeals were ignored. The Kremlin had too many other fires to fight across its crumbling empire.
So when Putin sent in troops to take back Crimea, he didn’t just increase Russia’s variety of Black Sea beaches. To his supporters, he corrected a historical anomaly. “Crimea is our common property, the most important factor of stability in the region,” Putin said during a speech in the Kremlin on March 18, just before signing a treaty to annex the peninsula. “This strategic territory should be under strong, stable sovereignty, which realistically may only be Russia today.”
Some Russians–the liberals Putin so scorns–warn that the Crimeans will find life as newly minted Russians less than rosy. “They’ll get some assistance, a few planeloads of sausages maybe, but all those freedoms they’ve gotten used to in Ukraine, they won’t have those in Russia,” Baronova says. “Nobody will let them have any kind of referendum here.” The peninsula could easily become another backwater dependent on handouts from Moscow, much like dozens of depressed regions that are already part of the Russian Federation. For all Putin’s triumphalism, Russia’s struggling economy can ill afford another high-maintenance province.
But at least while the world is watching Crimea, Putin will likely turn it into his personal project, an advertisement for other regions that might want to follow its example. “They’ll build a Potemkin village to show how splendid life in Russia is and how rotten it had been in Ukraine,” says Feygin. That could become a model for Putin’s new expansionism, which seems to have tapped into his people’s latent desire for a Soviet reunion. “The Russian mind is in its nature an imperialist thing,” Feygin says. “It is driven by this hunger for new borders, new territories. It’s like our national mission.” That mission would, if further realized, continue to gall the West. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned that any more expansion would “require a response that is commensurate with the level of that challenge.”
But for now, Crimeans are celebrating their new identity. As I arrived at the airport in Simferopol, the regional capital, to fly to Moscow on the day of Putin’s speech, hoots of joy broke out at the check-in desk as news of the annexation spread. The clerks were chattering about whether this would be the last Moscow flight to leave from the international terminal, and in the line for boarding, a young man began softly singing the Russian national anthem. “Louder!” someone yelled at him, and before long, half the people at the gate were singing. The anthem’s melody is the same as that of the Soviet Union’s version; only the words are amended. (One of the first acts of Putin’s rule in 2000 was to bring back the tune of the Soviet anthem.) And as the singing grew louder, some of the older folks at the airport went back to the Soviet lyrics, starting with the phrase “the indestructible union.”
This appears in the March 31, 2014 issue of TIME.