In recent decades, the world has watched as Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, Armenia seized part of Azerbaijan, Indonesia grabbed East Timor, Morocco took over resource-rich Western Sahara, North Vietnam absorbed the South and China claimed Tibet. Nobody expects any of those territories to be returned.
Don’t expect Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine either.
Crimea was captured from the Ottomans and annexed to Russia in 1783, along with parts of Ukraine. To celebrate that triumph, Grigory Potemkin arranged a visit to Crimea by Catherine the Great in 1787 for which he (allegedly) constructed the famous false-front “Potemkin Villages” to impress the Empress.
Krushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. Since both were part of the USSR, it was viewed as mostly symbolic. Ukraine itself (together with Belarus) was long seen as a Russian buffer zone against attacks from the west — in the past, from Sweden, France, Lithuania, Poland, and Germany — twice. Indeed, in the German invasion of 1941, that buffer allowed Stalin to trade space for time. The result was that the Nazi attack outran its supply lines and stalled in sight of Moscow.
After the breakup of the USSR, Russia signed a long-term lease with Ukraine for continued access to Sevastopol, a warm water port on the Black Sea.
That historical background helps explain why Putin took the risks of unilaterally annexing Crimea. He first fomented insurrection and then invaded on the pretext that Russian speakers there — 60 percent of the population — were threatened.
The U.S. has responded with economic and visa sanctions. To be effective, the Europeans must also sign on, but they get roughly 30 percent of their energy from Russia, which makes sanctions a hard sell.
The reality is that Putin holds almost all the cards, including energy and geography. Moreover, most countries in the world really don’t care if the flag flying over Crimea is Russian or Ukrainian. Obama has ruled out military action on grounds that Ukraine is not a member of NATO.