Al Jazeera America reports that neither side in the current Ukraine conflict has a clue about what comes next. Now that the U.S. and Russia are locking diplomatic horns, Germany’s Angela Merkel will play the good cop and attempt to sort all this out without bloodshed.
Neither Moscow nor the NATO powers have reckoned with the consequences of their Ukraine policies, according to Anatol Lieven, a war studies professor at Kings College in London and author of Ukraine: A Fraternal Rivalry. Restoring Yanukovich to power would require a full-blown invasion and occupation of a hostile western Ukraine, he writes, which would result in “horrendous bloodshed, a complete collapse of Russia’s relations with the West and of Western investment in Russia, a shattering economic crisis and Russia’s inevitable economic and geopolitical dependency on China.”
At the same time, Lieven warns, “Western governments, too, have put themselves in an extremely dangerous position. They have acquiesced to the overthrow of an elected government by ultra-nationalist militias, which have also chased away a large part of the elected parliament. This has provided a perfect precedent for Russian-backed militias in turn to seize power in the east and south of the country.”
In doing so, Russia has created new political facts on the ground it sees as balancing those created by its adversaries in Kiev. “After being wrong-footed on Ukraine’s economic future, Mr. Yanukovich’s survivability and Maidan’s durability,” writes former Assistant Secretary of State PJ Crowley, “Vladimir Putin has regained his leverage and time and space to undermine this revolution just like he did in 2005, which is what the past few days are really all about.
The prospect for armed confrontation could escalate sharply, however, if Russia tries to extend its new facts on the ground to strongly Russian cities in eastern Ukraine such as Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa. Even if Kiev remained reluctant to order its army into a war that Russia would likely win — albeit at heavy cost — the ultranationalist militias that helped bring down Yanukovich may have their own ideas. (This is a continent, after all, where an assassination by a secessionist gunman in Sarajevo in 1914 provided the spark for a conflagration that killed 37 million people.)
So, while the U.S. will take the lead in castigating Putin, Germany looks set to play the good cop. Chancellor Angela Merkel has opened a dialogue with Putin, whom she says has agreed to the creation of a contact group and fact-finding mission aimed at calming the situation. Moscow, of course, would prefer to avoid confrontation, but the events of the past week suggest it’s unlikely to do so by sacrificing its strategic priorities. Russia has dramatically escalated the crisis; the priority now for much of Western Europe has become to de-escalate. And that means Russia’s dramatic intervention in Crimea may have given the Kremlin more influence over Ukraine’s geopolitical destiny than it had a short week ago.