Crimea was the appetizer. The real prize for Vladimir Putin is likely to be eastern Ukraine. Without this vast region of coal mines and factories, the Kremlin strongman won't be able to achieve his goal of either controlling, destabilizing or splitting Ukraine. Otherwise the takeover of the country's southern peninsula hardly seems worth the trouble.
The Kremlin's claims about the importance of ethnic Russian identity and language are just a sideshow in the struggle here. What's going on is a pure power play. Since Mr. Putin has nuclear weapons and no apparent care for world opinion, give him an edge. But eastern Ukraine won't be as easy to snare as Crimea, and the attempt could backfire on Mr. Putin.
The Russian president is a man in a hurry. Russia has taken advantage of the inevitable chaos and uncertainty in post-revolutionary Kiev. A Moscow ally abandoned the presidency and fled town, and new pro-Western leaders formed a government only last Thursday. With each passing day, they should be getting a better grip over their state. The clock is perhaps their only true friend.
A pro-Russian protester waves a Russian flag (L) and the so-called flag of the Donetsk Republic in front of the regional administration building during a rally in the industrial Ukrainian city of Donetsk on March 1, 2014.Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
The Russian move on the east, beyond Crimea, began Saturday with protests in the industrial centers of Kharkiv, Donetsk and other cities. Television showed squares filled with thousands of Ukraine's ethnic Russians. Fiery speeches were made, local government buildings were stormed and topped with Russian flags, and calls for Moscow's help were issued by little-known local politicians. Right on cue, Russia's parliament accepted Mr. Putin's request to deploy military forces in Ukraine, citing "the threat to the lives of citizens of the Russian Federation." He gave himself the green light to go beyond Crimea.
These demonstrations were peculiar in places renowned for their political apathy and ethnic indifference. Political activists put deep roots in Kiev and in western Ukraine and made the revolution on the Maidan, or Independence Square. But the east feels, paradoxically, both more Soviet and more focused on business than Kiev. Polls in the region over the years showed virtually no support to leave Ukraine and join Russia. During the weeks of unrest in Kiev, Donetsk was quiet. Then suddenly on Saturday as many as 10,000 turned out in Lenin Square, a large number by local standards.
A few things in the crowd stood out. Some of the watches that people wore were set to the time in Russia's Rostov region just across the border. Some demonstrators spoke with the harder "g" sound common in Russia. By one count, at least eight buses with Russian license plates were seen near the site. And where did so many Russian flags appear from in Ukraine? In Kharkiv and other towns, the core of protesters for Russian intervention seemed to be Russian citizens.
Many locals turned out too, of course, from conviction or curiosity. Eastern Ukrainians speak Russian and feel culturally close to their neighbor. They watch the Putin government's television networks, which excoriate the "illegitimate self-appointed" government in Kiev as dominated by "ultra-nationalists" and "neo-fascists." Ukraine's parliament did the country's unity no favor, the day after President Viktor Yanukovych fled, by repealing a law that allowed regions to use Russian as a second official language. The move was a propaganda gift for Mr. Putin. The interim Ukraine president vetoed the bill, but the veto isn't getting much attention.
The bigger problem for Kiev is the vacuum of authority in the east. Donetsk was the home base of ousted President Yanukovych and the ruling Party of Regions. When he fled for Russia, several local governors and officials went with him. The police had no supervision. The Party of Regions, mostly a collection of corrupt interests, is reeling. Without national political leadership for the east, the local city council over the weekend called for a referendum on Donetsk's future status, raising alarms.
Through most of the past week in the capital, politicians jockeyed for jobs and prepared for the planned presidential election in late May. Maidan activists and journalists were going through Yanukovych palaces to tally his stolen billions. Little thought was given to how Mr. Putin might react to being humiliated by the revolution. He still hasn't spoken publicly on the matter. His intentions were made clear with Thursday's storming of Crimea's parliament by the military and the invasion that followed.
On Friday night in Kiev, as the loss of Crimea set in, the group of rival politicians who are running Ukraine were shocked by reports of ethnic-Russian demonstrators in the east planning protests for the next day. The shock mounted, say people who were at the emergency meetings, when the leaders realized that they couldn't rely on the local police or military in the east. The regional governors' offices were empty.
Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister who gained fame in the 2004 Orange Revolution with her distinctive braid of blond hair, pushed to fill those offices immediately. Other politicians bickered but the urgency of the moment won out. Ms. Tymoshenko, who made billions in Ukraine's murky gas business in the 1990s, had been jailed in 2011 by Mr. Yanukovych, on political charges. She was freed as the revolution triumphed. The Maidan activists distrust Ms. Tymoshenko, but the ambitious politician has asserted her control in this crisis. She has coordinated the response to the Putin attack and came up with the strategy to secure the east.
By Sunday, at her prodding, the authorities in Kiev had appointed prominent business oligarchs to run the governments in Kharkiv, Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk, an industrial city in the southeast. The men won't please the pro-Western activists who want a clean start for Ukrainian politics. Ms. Tymoshenko's aides insist that reliable people are needed who can be counted on to bring these regions under control by the old methods of patronage politics and favors for business.
The emerging Kiev strategy in the east is to line up establishment support for a single Ukraine and restore control over state institutions. This may make it harder for the Kremlin to use bussed-in demonstrators or little-known political proxies as an excuse to intervene by force. Mr. Putin could still try to make do with Russia-friendly political leaders in the Yanukovych mold.
But there's a danger here too for Mr. Putin. Eastern Ukrainians are, as Russian nationalists point out, close—but not the same—as Russians. If Ukraine survives his assault by the Kremlin, then their path to Europe and away from Mr. Putin's Eurasia fantasy will be clearer. And if eastern Ukrainians can live in a European democracy, then why not Russians?
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal's editorial board.