ABC The Drum

Placing economic and political sanctions on Russia is unlikely to succeed, while military repositioning could just escalate the crisis even further. In the end, only diplomacy can help resolve the Crimean crisis, writes

In a little more than a week, political developments in Ukraine have evolved from what seemed a textbook internal crisis, in which popular protests brought about the downfall of a government and ousting of a president, to a full-fledged international crisis. The situation now looks awfully similar to some Cold War episodes.

Vladimir Putin has done it again, it seems. Even though he cannot possibly mount the sort of threat the Soviet Union once represented, many analysts and academics agree that the Russian president is the tsar of opportunism. So far, the Russian modus operandi has been to first observe how other powers react to a crisis, wait for them to (more often than not) fail, and ultimately seize the opportunity.

This time, the opportunity presented itself in the form of regime change in Kiev. The creation of an interim, pro–European Union government, and the Ukrainian parliament's decision to abolish a law that allowed regions to make Russian a second official language, were enough to trigger mass protests in the majority-Russian Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

Moscow's unyielding patronage and concrete security assurances for Crimean Russians have, in turn, resulted in the mobilisation of Ukrainians and Tatars, who make up more than a third of the region's two million citizens. To add to the already complex reality, the Crimean peninsula is home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which has another three decades before the lease allowing it to be stationed there expires.

With this in mind, Russia's most recent moves have been explained primarily as protecting Russians abroad — something that even president Putin cited — and ensuring that Crimea remains under the Russian sphere of influence due to its strategic importance. While these explanations are not necessarily inaccurate, they do not fully account for the Kremlin's belligerence.

Sure enough, Putin's conduct of foreign policy, particularly towards what is referred to as Russia's Near Abroad, is consistent with some of the most recent crises that the country has been involved in. The South Ossetian War in 2008 is still a fresh and useful reminder that Russian leadership is not gun-shy when it comes to intervening in former Soviet republics in order to establish de facto control over breakaway territories.

There is also evidence that the Russian government has been getting increasingly frustrated in its negotiations with its Ukrainian counterpart over its naval base in Crimea. By supporting the partition of the autonomous republic and maybe even pushing for its annexation, it would be able to secure its strategic presence on the Black Sea. It is also worth noting that Russia has been pushing for an alternative and investing in another Black Sea base on its own territory over the past several years.

When analysed in a broader context, the showdown in Crimea is a page taken straight from the autocratic leader's manual. From Syria to South America, Putin has shown that his aim is to maintain Russia's influence in world affairs on his own terms. Moreover, given that the stakes are much higher in this case, there is all the more reason to believe that he will be relentless. This is also a beneficial exercise for domestic audiences, since the least it does is divert attention away from internal issues, and at best, it solidifies the perception of Putin's strength.

Unfortunately, it is not just the relatively low domestic constraints that enable Russia to act the way it does. Its economic might, paired with the prominent role it plays in the international arena, make it hard for the West to impose costs for being the regional bully.

So far, several options have been put on the table — from expulsion from the G8, which Russia is supposed to host in June, banking sanctions, and suspension of trade agreements, to military pressure in the form of moving American warships to the region. With respect to economic and political sanctions, there are serious doubts over their effectiveness, as well as an unwillingness on the part of some Western countries to implement them at all. Whereas military repositioning could just add to existing tensions and escalate the crisis even further.

In that vein, it is worth revisiting the example of the Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia. In August 2008, Russians continued with military action despite America sending warships to the region and military aircraft that assisted with bringing aid into Georgia's capital. Furthermore, in a matter of a year after invading Georgia, Russia was back in NATO's good graces and, with President Obama taking office, on the path to recovering its relationship with the US.

Ultimately, the US secretary of state John Kerry's warning about the consequences of "a brazen act of aggression" and his threat of isolating Russia might not be as dire, nor as effective, as they sound. More importantly, given that Russia seems prepared to bear the costs of its latest foreign policy decision, playing hardball might just push it over the brink. Thus, the only way that the international community can work towards peacefully resolving the crisis in the Crimea is to keep on pursuing diplomatic dialogue and acting to defuse the tensions.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum