The good will Russia gained from the Sochi Olympics all but vanished over the weekend as Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops to occupy the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. Hard to miss the unprovoked violation of national sovereignty. What appears plain, too, is the complexity of the crisis, though the usual sabre-rattling and blame cast on President Obama signaled that the challenge has escaped the grasp of some.
The United States and its allies are not going to use military force, even if Russia grabs a larger chunk of Ukraine. They may have difficulty organizing an effective use of economic sanctions. Germany and others rely on Russia for energy supplies. At the same time, the intervention must not be permitted to stand, Russia paying an appropriate price if it persists and certainly if it goes farther. Developing and delivering the necessary approach will require astute diplomacy, ready to engage and isolate Russia.
The effort begins with a clear notion of the goal, or how Washington and its partners want the episode to end. The leading objective must be the territorial integrity of Ukraine, power flowing from the Ukrainian people, its economy on a path to stability. That means, in part, assuring the integrity of the May elections, Ukrainians with a chance to express their wishes about their country’s direction.
To a degree, the complexity of the situation works in the favor of diplomats, the many components and layers serving as a range of options for crafting a resolution.
Since the collapse of the Soviet empire, Ukraine and Russia have discussed many times and reached agreements on carving space for the ethnic Russian population in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine. Many Russian speakers worry about the erosion of such protections. The two countries have a treaty that permits Russia to lease a naval base in Sevastopol. There even is an argument for Crimea, part of Ukraine since 1954, having a greater measure of autonomy, its largely Russian population deciding its fate.
As other analysts have noted, this confrontation long has been in the making, many Ukrainians looking to build stronger ties to the European Union, Russia wary of NATO at its doorstep. What also plays a decisive role is the increasing integration of Russia into the global economy, starting with its financial oligarchs, both sides, thus, Moscow and Washington plus allies, with leverage in this confrontation.
So, the incentives are there to find a way out. Perhaps prospects improved, however slightly, on Wednesday as John Kerry, the secretary of state, met with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. In some circumstances, military action can serve as an effective tool in advancing a diplomatic mission. This isn’t one of them.
Vladimir Putin overstepped, to say the least. Now a way must be found to provide him with an exit, the complications allowing room for the diplomats to maneuver, with one thing unshakable, Ukrainians deciding for themselves.