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Ukraine Crisis Gives West No Good Options

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GENYA SAVILOV via Getty Images

By Peter Apps

LONDON, March 2 (Reuters) - 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 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 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 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."


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 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 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 will lose."

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)

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set up a final vote Thursday on a bill that would provide Ukraine with up to billion in loan guarantees and impose targeted sanctions against Russian officials.

Reid made the announcement Tuesday after dropping a controversial provision from the Senate bill that would have boosted the U.S. quota at the International Monetary Fund. Republicans in both chambers of Congress opposed the IMF reforms, which were specifically requested by the White House to increase Ukraine's borrowing capabilities at the institution.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier Tuesday that Republicans would still want to vote on a number of amendments, but the IMF language was the major sticking point. Without it, the Ukraine aid package is expected to pass both the Senate and the House without much drama or delay.

--Sabrina Siddiqui

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From the Associated Press:

Authorities in a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova claim to have brought down a Ukrainian drone on a reconnaissance mission.

NovostiPMR, the news agency of Trans-Dniester says Tuesday that the region's intelligence agency downed the drone on March 23.

The region broke away from Moldova in 1990. There are 1,500 Russian troops stationed there guarding hundreds of tons of weapons.

According to the agency, the drone was "launched from Ukrainian territory by people close to the Ukrainian Security Service and the Defense Ministry."

It said the plane illegally crossed into Trans-Dniester violating its air space. It added that the authorities in the region reserved the right to use "all available methods" to defend the territory which is not internationally recognized but is supported by Russia.

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Reuters reports:

Russian forces appeared to be attempting to take over the last military ship controlled by Ukraine in Crimea on Tuesday after a Ukrainian military spokesman reported explosions in its vicinity and helicopters approaching the vessel.

Russian forces armed with stun grenades and automatic weapons have seized ships and military bases from the last remaining Ukrainian troops in Crimea in recent days as part of Russia's largely bloodless annexation of the region.

Kiev, which calls Russia's annexation of Crimea illegal, ordered its remaining forces to withdraw for their own safety on Monday, but not all troops have yet left the Black Sea peninsula and some ships have been prevented from leaving.

"Around 1900 (1600 GMT) there were several explosions from the direction of the minesweeper Cherkasy in the Donuzlav bay," Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told Reuters.

"Some Mi-35 helicopter gunships were observed hovering in the area. Speedboats and a tug were seen approaching Cherkasy," he said.

On Monday Cherkasy attempted without success to break to the open sea through a blockade at the entrance to the inlet. The Russian navy blocked the route earlier this month by scuttling three hulks in the channel.

Seleznyov said he was unable to confirm whether Russian troops had boarded the ship.

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From Reuters:

Russia's military staged training exercises on Tuesday in Transdniestria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova that is a focus of tension following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

NATO's top military commander said on Sunday he was worried that Russia might have its eye on Transdniestria, a largely Russian-speaking region that borders western Ukraine, after seizing Crimea, which has a narrow ethnic Russian majority.

The Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for Russia's Western Military District, Colonel Oleg Kochetkov, as saying that Russian forces stationed in Transdniestria had "conducted an anti-terrorism drill and practiced operations to rebuff an attack on their military base".

Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia has a permanent garrison of peacekeepers there.

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Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, in something of a Shermanesque statement, that the country will not develop nuclear weapons, one day after the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs seized on a proposal by some Ukrainian MPs to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"Ukraine has not planned, is not planning and is not going to plan to resume its nuclear status," a spokesman for the agency said at a press briefing.

Earlier this month, several opposition MPs introduced a draft bill to withdraw Ukraine from the NPT. Russia's Foreign Ministry seized on it, saying "the dysfunctional new Kiev authorities may pose a threat to the security of Ukrainian nuclear sites under the current Ukrainian circumstances," in a statement.
"We do not trust attempts of the Ukrainian delegate to dissociate from this position. The NPT is in serious danger."

Ukraine, which suddenly became the world's third-largest nuclear state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, gave its nuclear arsenal back to Russia for disposal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for security assurances from Russia that it would respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.

--Luke Johnson

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The world's industrialized nations have turned their back on Russia, following Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

Though the G8 cannot expel its members, countries can refuse a member permission to attend, effectively expelling them.

With jitters in the east of Europe about further Russian incursion, and wariness in China, the state of world diplomacy could look very different by 2015.

HuffPost UK has asked military and international relations experts on five scenarios that could occur now Russia looks increasingly isolated, and as the West looks impotent.

Read here what they predict.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may drop a controversial reform to the U.S. share at the International Monetary Fund from the Ukraine aid package, according to Senate leadership aides.

The provision was requested by President Barack Obama and Ukrainian leaders, but faces widespread opposition from Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that his members would not support the aid bill unless the IMF language was dropped.

A Senate leadership aide said removing the provision is now "under consideration in order to move the bill." In exchange, Republicans would drop their demand to delay a Treasury Department rule that cracks down on the political activities of nonprofits, known as 501(c)(4)s.

The House of Representatives passed its own legislation providing aid to Ukraine earlier this month without the IMF reforms, and planned to move on a sanctions bill that also left the issue untouched. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said boosting U.S. funds at the IMF has "nothing to do with Ukraine," and his aides indicated they would not have enough votes to move the Senate bill through the lower chamber in its current form.

The Obama administration and Senate Democrats have been making the case that ratifying the IMF reforms, which were agreed upon in 2010, is critical to Ukraine's borrowing capabilities in a time of crisis. Still, some House Democrats acknowledged that the White House was complicating the process by renewing debate over a contentious issue when providing aid expeditiously is of the utmost importance.

--Sabrina Siddiqui

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President Barack Obama dismissed the notion that former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was correct in saying that Russia was "our number one geopolitical foe" Tuesday, in a response to a question from Jonathan Karl of ABC News. He said that Russia was merely a "regional power" that was acting out of "weakness."

"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and we have considerable influence on our neighbors," he said. "We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."

--Luke Johnson

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At a press conference in Europe, U.S. President Barack Obama sidestepped a question on whether he "misread" Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he wasn't so interested in his motivations.

"With respect to President Putin's motivation, I think there has been a lot of speculation. I am less interested in motivation and more interested in the facts and the principles that not only the United States but the entire international community are looking to uphold."

He added that the United States is "concerned" about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine.

--Luke Johnson

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From Reuters:

Ukraine, its economy seriously weakened by months of political turmoil and mismanagement, is negotiating with the International Monetary Fund for a loan package of -20 billion, its finance minister said on Tuesday.

The minister, Oleksander Shlapak, speaking to reporters before a government meeting, said the ministry foresaw continued slowdown and stagnation in the economy with it contracting by 3 per cent in 2014.

Referring to talks now going on with the IMF, he said: "We are successfully heading towards concluding a programme. I think we shall receive (what we seek). This sum is from 15 to 20 billion dollars."

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Most Americans do not think that the United States has a responsibility to intervene in Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea, a CBS News poll released Tuesday found. 61 percent think that the United States isn't obliged to do anything while 32 percent think it is. 65 percent -- including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents -- think that the U.S. should not provide military aid to Ukraine, which it has thus far refused.

--Luke Johnson

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Russian Deputy Economic Development Minister Andrei Klepach said Monday that capital flight will reach billion in first quarter 2014.

In comparison, capital flight for all of 2013 was just under billion. The minister also expected that growth for the first quarter will be "near zero."

"Unfortunately the investment slump is continuing. I'm not ready to say how long it will continue," he told reporters.

The rate of flight would be the highest since the 2008 financial crisis.

The forecast is yet another sign that the Crimean invasion is seriously damaging the Russian economy. The Russian stock index MICEX has dropped 13.2 percent on the year, compared to a 5.7 drop for the MSCI emerging market index.

--Luke Johnson

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The White House released a statement from the U.S. and Ukraine on nuclear proliferation today. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the third-largest nuclear weapons state. It gave up the weapons to Russia in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in exchange for security assurances from Russia.

Read the full statement:

On the occasion of the third Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, the United States and Ukraine today reaffirm their strategic partnership and emphasize the important role of nuclear nonproliferation in that relationship. The United States values its 20-year partnership with Ukraine on these issues. Our nonproliferation partnership dates from Ukraine’s 1994 decision to remove all nuclear weapons from its territory and to accede to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a non-nuclear-weapon state. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the United States, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland welcomed these Ukrainian actions, and they reaffirmed their commitment to Ukraine to respect the independence, sovereignty, and existing borders of Ukraine. The United States government reaffirms that commitment today to the new Ukrainian government and the people of Ukraine, including in Crimea. The United States government condemns Russia’s failure to abide by its commitments under the Budapest Memorandum with its unilateral military actions in Ukraine. Russia’s actions undermine the foundation of the global security architecture and endanger European peace and security. Ukraine and the United States emphasize that they will not recognize Russia's illegal attempt to annex Crimea. Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine. The United States will continue to help Ukraine affirm its sovereignty and territorial integrity. As the people of Ukraine work to restore unity, peace, and security to their country, the United States will stand by their side.
The United States and Ukraine reiterate their commitment to upholding their nuclear nonproliferation commitments. The United States recognizes the importance of the 2012 removal of all highly enriched uranium from Ukraine. This removal again highlighted Ukraine’s leadership in nuclear security and nonproliferation, as we collectively work together to secure the world’s vulnerable nuclear material. As part of its support for this effort, the United States committed in 2010 to work with Ukraine to construct a Neutron Source Facility at the Kharkiv Institute for Physics and Technology. This month construction of the Neutron Source Facility was completed. The facility, equipped with the most up-to-date technology to operate at the highest safety standards, provides Ukraine with new research capabilities and the ability to produce industrial and medical isotopes for the benefit of the Ukrainian people.

This state of the art facility is representative of the modern, European state the Government of Ukraine is committed to building. To build on this important cooperation, the United States will continue to provide technical support for the Neutron Source Facility as Ukraine completes the necessary final equipment installation, testing, and start-up to make the facility fully operational as soon as practical.

This successful effort reflects broad U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation on nuclear security and nonproliferation. Our countries recently extended the U.S.-Ukraine Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Umbrella Agreement and the U.S.-Ukraine Agreement Concerning Operational Safety Enhancements, Risk Reduction Measures, and Nuclear Safety Regulation for Civilian Nuclear Facilities in Ukraine.

The United States and Ukraine intend to continue to partner to prevent nuclear proliferation by improving Ukraine’s ability to detect nuclear materials on its borders, to provide physical protection at sites with nuclear or radioactive materials, and to maintain an adequate export control system in order to help realize the goals of the Nuclear Security Summits.

--Luke Johnson

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President Barack Obama and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev spoke today at The Hague, according to a White House pool report. There were no formal remarks between the two men.

Nazarbayev said in a phone call that he "treats with understanding the position of Russia" on Crimea, which appears to be a very delicate diplomatic turn of phrase. Some have speculated of a Crimean-style scenario in Kazakhstan, which has a large minority of Russian speakers.

A joint statement between the two leaders contained no mention of Crimea, instead focusing on nonproliferation.

--Luke Johnson

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The Associated Press is now reporting that Ukraine's parliament has accepted the defense minister's resignation, after rejecting it earlier.

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From Reuters:

WASHINGTON, March 24 (Reuters) - A bill providing economic assistance to Ukraine and imposing sanctions over Russia's seizure of Crimea cleared a procedural hurdle in the U.S. Senate on Monday, as backers attempted to win passage of the legislation later this week.

By a vote of 78-17, the Senate laid the groundwork for debating a bill that would back a billion loan guarantee for the government in Kiev, provide 0 million in aid for Ukraine and neighboring countries and require sanctions on Russians and Ukrainians responsible for corruption, human rights abuses or undermining stability in Ukraine.

Full story here.

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Britain's Foreign Minister William Hague said the countries of the G7 have agreed to discuss ways to reduce European dependence on Russian energy supplies in coming weeks and months.

Reuters reports:

Hague said the decision to hold the G8 meeting without Russia this year is "of course a huge blow to the G8, it means there is no G8 this year. The president of the United States was very clear in the meeting that it will then be hard to revive that in the immediate future."

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Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports that according to a Crimean official, all Ukrainian military units have left Crimea, leaving the military bases in the region under Russian control.

“All Ukrainian military personnel have either joined Russia or are leaving Crimea,” first deputy prime minister, Rustam Temirgaliyev, reportedly said.

Read the full report here.

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From the Associated Press:

Ukraine is hoping the United Nations General Assembly will adopt a resolution later this week reaffirming the country's unity and territorial integrity and underscoring that the referendum in Crimea that led to its annexation by Russia "has no validity."

The draft resolution, circulated Monday to the 193 assembly members and obtained by The Associated Press, never mentions Russia by name but calls on all countries not to recognize "any alteration of the status" of Crimea.

It also urges all parties to immediately pursue the peaceful resolution of the situation in Ukraine and exercise restraint.

The resolution is expected to be put to a vote at a General Assembly meeting on Thursday.

Unlike the Security Council, where veto-wielding Russia has blocked any action on Ukraine, the General Assembly has no vetoes.

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