LONDON: With Western powers increasingly concluding Ukraine has lost Crimea to Russia, the U.S. and its allies face few viable options and serious questions over future relations.
In ignoring President Barack Obama’s Friday warning to keep out of Ukraine, Russia looks to be precipitating the greatest crisis in Russia-Western relations since at least the fall of the Berlin Wall.
How events play out in the next few days could help shape the geopolitical map for years to come.
Any Western direct military action would risk a war between nuclear superpowers. Ukraine’s relatively small and underequipped forces could take action but would risk inciting a much wider Russian invasion that could overrun the country.
Obama in particular faces some domestic calls to support Ukraine, although appetite for military involvement appears almost entirely absent. On Saturday, the Pentagon said there had been no change to its military deployments.
“For the West, it’s a very difficult position,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security at the U.S. Naval War College. “Obama effectively set down the U.S. red lines,” he said. Putin has gone right through them.”
Russian forces without official insignia have taken control of key facilities in Ukraine’s Black Sea Crimean peninsula over the past three days and surrounded Ukrainian military units.
The best that can now be done, some current and former officials say, is to avoid a further escalation that sees Moscow take over industrialized eastern Ukraine – also mainly Russian-speaking and far larger and more economically significant.
Russian troops are engaged in war games near the border with Ukraine and pro-Russian activists have hoisted Russian flags at government buildings in the east, clashing with supporters of Ukraine’s new authorities, but there has been no sign of Russian military action there so far.
Washington and other NATO powers must also find a way to reassure increasingly flustered Eastern European states – particularly the former Soviet Baltics – that their defense guarantees will be honored, without escalating tensions.
The risk of missteps is high. As well as conventional forces, Russia could cut off gas supplies to Europe, which run through Ukraine, and is believed to have sophisticated cyberattack capabilities it could turn on Ukraine or the West.
“This is arguably the most dangerous situation in Europe since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968,” said one Western official on condition of anonymity. “With troops at high readiness on exercise in [Russia’s] western military district they are in a strong position.”
Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 after the “Prague Spring” saw a more moderate government come to power seen as much more open to the West.
Despite Czech calls for support, Washington and its allies offered little more than criticism, reluctant to risk nuclear war following the Cuban Missile crisis six years earlier.
The current standoff is more dangerous than that over the 2008 Georgia war, where the West held back in part because the Georgian government was blamed for escalating the war through an attempt to seize the disputed region of South Ossetia.
In sending troops to Ukraine, in contrast, Moscow is seen to have unilaterally invaded a sovereign state – although there have long been Russian forces in Crimea, which leases the base for its Black Sea Fleet in Sebastopol from Ukraine.
NATO states have no legally binding alliance ties to Ukraine, although Western officials have been broadly supportive of those who ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich last week after dozens of pro-Europe protesters were shot dead.
Last week, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe U.S. General Philip Breedlove told reporters the alliance had no military plans to support Ukraine if attacked.
In an article for Foreign Policy magazine Saturday, Breedlove’s predecessor said that should quickly change.
“The hope is that cooler heads will prevail,” retired Admiral James Stavridis wrote. “However, hope is not a strategy, and therefore further action should be considered.”
During the 2008 Georgia war, Washington sent warships into the Black Sea to deliver aid and diplomatic support.
Two U.S. warships, the assault ship USS Mount Whitney and destroyer USS Taylor, were deployed earlier this month to provide security support for the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Sending them toward Ukraine could be seen as provocative, however. “Realistically, we have to assume the Crimea is in Russian hands,” the Western official said.
“The challenge now is to deter Russia from taking over the Russian-speaking east of Ukraine.”
For now, the West is falling back on political and economic measures, starting with several countries pulling out of preparatory meetings for June’s Russia-hosted G-8 summit and recalling their ambassadors from Moscow.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry threatened sanctions Sunday, mentioning visa bans, asset freezes and trade isolation as possible steps.
At their most extreme, financial sanctions could target senior Russian officials – perhaps even Putin himself – and in the longer term, Europe will try to wean itself off Russian gas.
Ukraine’s military, now ordered to full combat readiness to repel a full Russian invasion, is considerably weaker than Russia’s. London-based think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies says it has some 129,950 military personnel. Russia mobilized up to 150,000 troops Friday in its western military district in what it called a planned drill.
Ukrainian special forces or irregular units could mount hit-and-run attacks on Russian forces in the country. For now, however, they are seen holding back.
“My feeling is that if this remains just Crimea, the Ukrainians will let it go for now,” says Dmitry Gorenburg, Russia analyst at the U.S. government-funded Center for Naval Analyses, part of the larger not-for-profit CNA Corporation.
“But if Russia looks like it’s going to take the rest of eastern Ukraine, they will fight even if it means they know they will lose.”