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* Military action against Russia in Crimea seen unlikely
* Priority to stop wider seizure of eastern Ukraine
* Diplomatic, other sanctions, more assertive NATO likely
By Peter Apps
LONDON, March 2 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
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 US Naval War
College. "Obama effectively set down the US 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 industrialised eastern Ukraine - also mainly
Russian-speaking and far larger and more economically
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 defence
guarantees will be honoured, 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 cyber
attack 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."
WEST HOLDS BACK
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 stand-off 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.
Ukraine's borders were also guaranteed by the 1994 Budapest
Memorandum, also signed by Russia, the US and Britain, in return
for giving up Soviet-era nuclear weapons left in the country
after the Soviet Union's collapse.
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 on 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. Planning is
vital to laying out options to decision makers, and NATO's
military planners should have a busy weekend at least."
NATO ambassadors held emergency talks in Brussels on Sunday
with European foreign ministers to meet on Monday.
Ukraine participates in various NATO operations and has
formed a consultative commission with the alliance. Officials
say the commission may meet in the coming days and could request
that NATO headquarters begins some contingency planning.
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 towards Ukraine could be seen as provocative,
however. To make matters more complex, USS Taylor ran aground
near a Turkish port on February 12 and was damaged.
"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
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 G8 summit and
recalling their ambassadors from Moscow.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry threatened sanctions on
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.
NATO is seen almost certain to cancel a range of joint
meetings with Moscow and pull out of joint anti-terror
exercises. The alliance could also decide to extend membership -
or lesser ties - to both Georgia and Ukraine, although that
might prove several steps too far for some member states.
More major exercises and shows of force from NATO in areas
bordering Russia now appear all but inevitable, building on
November's "Steadfast Jazz" Baltic drills.
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 (IISS) says it has some 129,950 military
personnel. Russia mobilised up to 150,000 troops on 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 US government-funded Centre 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
Some analysts explicitly compare events in Crimea with Nazi
Germany's 1938 annexation of Czechoslovakia's German-speaking
Sudetenland, followed months later by the rest of the country
and the next year by Poland, sparking the Second World War.
The important thing now, they argue, is to make sure Russia
understands which lines - such as those around NATO Baltic
members - really cannot be crossed.
In Poland, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the Ukrainian
conflict could accelerate Warsaw's efforts to modernise the army
and gain energy independence.
But most capitals, including Washington, have little
economic choice but to cut defence spending.
"The Russian military still doesn't really compare to ours,"
said former U.S. Navy officer Christopher Harmer, now senior
analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington DC.
"But they know where they want to use it and unlike us, they
have the will to do so."
(additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek, Adrian Croft and
Justyna Pawlak in Brussels and Karolina Slowikowska in Warsaw;
editing by Philippa Fletcher)