The challenge for Putin is tougher. He has made clear that his identity is not simply Russian, but Soviet. The collapse of the Soviet Union was, in his terms, the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. And the center of the Soviet Union was Russia and the Ukraine. Subduing Ukraine's schismatic wars and crushing the aspirations of the Ukrainian peasant farmers (kulaks) was central to the formation of the Soviet empire under Joseph Stalin.
Not to belabor the details, but Simon Sebag Montefiore's biography of Stalin In the Court of the Red Tsar, describes Nikita Krushchev's rise from Ukrainian Communist Party leader to inside member of Stalin's court largely on the basis of his ability to outperform his quotas of Ukrainians killed month after month until the numbers totaled in the hundreds of thousands. This is the history whose loss Putin laments.
What happens next is unclear. It is easier for me that for Putin. It seems my family was Ukrainian after all, and I will just have to deal with that. I will have to unfriend my former compatriots Anna Ahkmatova and Aleksandr Pushkin. I can continue to embrace Nikolai Gogol. I will remain skeptical of my Grandmother's claim that we were related to Leon Trotsky.
But for Putin, this is a tougher moment, and his options would appear to be limited. Unlike the Russia-Georgia war, there is no standing army against which to fight. Unlike his Chechen wars, Ukraine cannot be brutally subdued outside of public view. Certainly putsch's can still work--the Egyptian military has proven that recently--and a terror campaign against domestic opponents is not out of the question--as Putin has himself supported in Syria. But each of those both demand a ruthless Ukrainian leadership and a supportive Ukrainian military, they cannot simply be imposed from the outside. And then there is Khrushchev's approach, but for all of Putin's posturing, he does not have the will to power of a Stalin or a Khrushchev.
Putin could choose to adapt to a the reality. He could offer the new Ukrainian government the $15 billion aid offer that he put on the table early on in the crisis to forestall Ukraine's acceptance of the Association Agreement with Europe. This would demonstrate goodwill and further bind Ukraine's economic future to Russia's.
But that would be a weak response. Losing Ukraine means losing his position as an historical Russian figure. Instead of comparisons to Peter the Great, who expanded the Russian empire into the Ukraine, Putin's place would be alongside Mikhail Gorbachev, an earlier handmaiden of Russian decline and humiliation. To Russian nationalists, it would bring cries of 'who lost Ukraine', and it would send the message across Russia's near abroad that Putin's plans for the reassertion of the Soviet sphere of influence have come crashing back to earth. It would compromise the leadership of authoritarian regimes in each of the lesser states that Putin has wrapped so tightly around Russia's perimeter. Even Russian democrats would be given succor.
Putin must have another plan. He must have something more. He must have one more move to change the trajectory of the Ukrainian drama. Because if he doesn't, all that he tried to build will come crashing down, and that will be his legacy. Just one man riding across the taiga, a bare chested leader with no one following behind.