Which is why I found this op-ed piece in The New York Times so illuminating. I cannot speak to the veracity of the analysis, but at least it speaks my language: what are the incentives that Putin is responding to. It may have inaccuracies but the discussion of incentives makes a lot if sense to me:
Mr. Putin’s aim is not a de jure separation of Crimea from the rest of Ukraine. That would be legally problematic and disadvantageous to Moscow in terms of its future influence over Ukrainian politics. The purpose of Russia’s incursion was to obtain the greatest possible autonomy for Crimea while still retaining formal Ukrainian jurisdiction over the peninsula.
A referendum on March 30 is likely to result in a vote for further autonomy, and it would provide Crimea with such broad freedoms that it would become a de facto Russian protectorate. Moscow would then aim to keep the Russian Black Sea fleet in Crimea indefinitely, and remove any limits on its operations, size and replenishment.
That’s because Russia has a strong interest in nominally retaining Crimea as part of Ukraine. From the disintegration of the Soviet Union onward, Crimea, with its traditionally separatist leanings, was always a destabilizing factor. It served as a direct avenue of Russian pressure on Ukraine, and also guaranteed almost a million “pro-Russian” votes in Ukrainian elections, ensuring the dominance of the pro-Russian eastern half of the country over the nationalist western half.
Ahh ... realpolitik