Delicate road ahead as diplomats seek way out of Ukraine crisis

Some feel Western threats have halted Russia's power grab for Kiev, but Crimea may already be lost

Ukrainian forces stand guard at a Ukrainian naval base near the Crimean city of Simferopol as troops, believed to be Russian, patrol on the other side of the gate.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

With diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, and the West meeting in Paris on Wednesday and European leaders set to convene for an extraordinary session in Brussels on Thursday, the crisis in the Crimean Peninsula seems to have taken a brief pause while Western leaders explore their options for staving off a conflict with the potential for real bloodshed.

Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin intended to leverage de-escalation in return for an autonomous Crimea all along, or because the West has issued harsher threats than anticipated, most analysts agree that Russia could be ready to back down. But with more than 6,000 troops stationed in Crimea and Putin reiterating as recently as Tuesday that military intervention is still on the table, the diplomatic road to de-escalation is delicate.

“What could serve as a reason to use military force? It would naturally be the last resort, absolutely the last,” Putin told reporters in Moscow. “For now there is no such need, but such a possibility exists.”

Click here for more on Ukraine's uprising

There is wide consensus that by sending troops into Crimea, a Russian separatist flash point in newly West-facing Ukraine, Putin has more or less already made his point that Russia’s military might in its “near abroad,” the former Soviet republics, is uncontested. Further instigation — which could spark regional war — will yield diminishing returns and international condemnation. 

Since landing in Crimea on Friday, Russian forces have not advanced elsewhere into the Russian-speaking south and east of Ukraine — as many feared would happen — and what once seemed a military situation heading for bloodshed has tapered slightly to a tense, but thus far bloodless standoff.

Unwilling to send troops into Crimea, the U.S. and its cash-strapped, war-weary NATO allies have threatened a combination of vague economic sanctions and geopolitical exclusion they hope will be enough to stop Russia’s march further into Ukraine. Some analysts say those threats have begun to do the trick.

“We see very early signs of these threats beginning to work,” said Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, a Russia expert at Stanford University. “Putin isn’t marching into Donetsk (in Eastern Ukraine) — he’s given pause.”

Despite Putin’s bravado, the U.S. hopes that Russia’s slowing economic growth might incline it towards cooperation if the terms are right. The Russian economy is "highly subject to the vagaries of world commodity prices," said a January report from the U.S. government’s Congressional Research Services, adding that the global recession exposed "weaknesses in the economy, including its significant dependence on the production and export of oil and other natural resources and its weak financial system."

On Tuesday, a U.S. official told Reuters that Washington was ready to impose sanctions on Russia within a matter of days. “We’re looking at all of the options,” the unnamed official said. Most expect those options to include, among other things, cutting off Western investment in Russia and freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs, who do business in cities like London and New York, and who prop up the authoritarian regime of President Vladimir Putin.

The G-8 has also suspended preparations for the bloc’s upcoming Russian-hosted summit in the Olympic town of Sochi in June. The group’s other seven nations — the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K., Canada, Italy, and Japan — issued a joint condemnation of Russian military aggression. The EU has also threatened the suspension of visa liberalization talks and a range of economic negotiations currently underway.

These are much more than symbolic moves, Stoner-Weiss said. “Part of the Ukraine crisis is about Russia trying to re-establish itself as a great power. But being a great power in the 21st century is not about grabbing land — that’s an 18th or 19th century definition. It’s about being part of the international financial system and being well-integrated into international markets,” she said.

But the push for harsh sanctions is far from a united front, and U.S. sanctions alone will not be enough pressure to end the standoff.

Europe has greater economic ties to Russia, including a natural gas pipeline from Russian giant Gazprom that provides 30 percent of the continent’s supply, and EU policymakers may agree with Putin’s position that the detrimental effect of sanctions is a two-way street. German chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led the charge for a mediated solution to the Crimean crisis, has indicated she would prefer to hold off on sanctions altogether while direct talks with Moscow are underway. An official document leaked this week indicates the U.K. might take the same line. 

Whether sanctions have pushed Putin to the table or not, the concerted effort in Paris and elsewhere will now be to tackle the many moving parts involved in a diplomatic de-escalation. Analysts agree that multilateral talks will be needed to cement whatever de-escalation can be achieved through economic and geopolitical leverage. That is easier said than done.

Though the situation in Ukraine is often compared to similar standoffs in Georgia or Moldova, where Russia has sent troops to intervene on behalf of breakaway regions and undermine the forging of ties with Europe, Russia may not be satisfied with an ambiguous, pseudo-resolution in Ukraine like those in Georgia or Moldova. “These frozen conflicts live off the ambiguity that they haven’t been settled by any treaty, but in Ukraine’s case the Black Sea fleet in Crimea is too important to Russia for an ambiguous solution,” said Joerg Forbrig, and Eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund.

It is unclear just how Putin can be convinced to sit down with Ukraine’s new government, who he has decried as illegitimate, while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has called their revolution an “armed mutiny.” On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that while envoys from Russia, Ukraine, France, the U.K. and the U.S. were engaged in negotiations, they are not yet necessarily sitting at the same time, hinting at an early stumbling block for the diplomatic effort.

There has been no love lost between Putin and Ukraine’s ousted former president Viktor Yanukovich, who Putin has criticized for not cracking down more harshly on the mass demonstrations in Kiev that ultimately toppled his pro-Russian government. Still, bringing the deposed president to talks as Russia’s pawn might be a workaround that allows for "multilateral" negotiations without undermining the Kremlin's stance that Yanukovich remains the legitimate ruler of Ukraine.

A second stipulation likely necessary to bring Putin to the table is that he be able to stage a face-saving exit from Ukraine. Russians have by and large approved of Putin’s aggressive handling of the Ukraine situation, which many in Russia view as a front in the revived Cold War, and there is risk that if Putin appears to bend to Western pressure he might undo those gains at home. Putin will want to walk away from talks with something to show for it, and an autonomous Crimea seems the most likely prize.

In an op-ed for the New York Times on Thursday, Ruslan Pukhov, Director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, argued that autonomy for Crimea was Putin's foremost goal all along. "Mr. Putin is seeking to strong-arm the new, weak and unstable government in Kiev into agreeing to full autonomy for Crimea rather than risk a full scale invasion into Ukraine and a partition that chops off the country’s entire south and east," he wrote. In other words, Crimea is the price the new government of Ukraine must pay for scorning Russia.

Even if that is an acceptable, or at least an inevitable concession, diplomats and the interim government in Kiev will be walking on eggshells. As Putin said in his Tuesday press conference, Russia has reserved the right to ramp up its military movements once again. Whatever steps toward de-escalation are taken over the next few days could unravel if an errant bullet should strike an ethnic Russian anywhere in Ukraine, providing Russia with the pretext it needs for a full-on invasion under the auspices of protecting the majority ethnic Russian population on the peninsula.

That looming threat underlines the final — and most critical — component to any de-escalation effort: Ukraine must continue to stand back even as its territorial integrity is violated. If that means abandoning Crimea, analysts say, so be it.

“I think it is already lost at this point,” said Stoner-Weiss. “The question is will it be lost bloodlessly, or will Ukraine fight back and stage a losing battle.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter