US President Barack Obama’s meeting with acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at the White House on Wednesday was the most demonstrably public show of support for Kiev’s interim government from Washington. On Sunday, ethnic Russian-majority Crimea votes in a referendum on whether to remain in Ukraine or join Russia, with nobody doubting the outcome. The West has warned that the referendum violates the UN Charter and is illegal. Obama’s threat of imposing “costs” on Russia’s continued occupation of Crimea echoed a G7 warning of further sanctions against Russian officials and entities.
From Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective, Moscow is fully in control of the situation, or opportunity, it has created out of an adversity — former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s exit. The current pace of events suits Moscow and Putin can anticipate the sanctions. The EU plans to sign a political agreement with Kiev later this month and the US Senate has authorised a $1 billion loan guarantee to Kiev. But given the centrality of Crimea to Russia’s sense of history and strategic calculations, even the growing uncertainty about June’s G8 meet in Sochi is not diluting Russia’s firmness.
As US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday, he would do well to keep in mind the Obama administration’s initial missteps in handling the crisis. Antagonising Russia isn’t the key to securing Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Rather, Moscow’s pressure point is Berlin and German Chancellor Ankela Merkel’s steadily toughening stance. The two economies are intricately linked, but that also implies economic sanctions will hurt not only Russia but also the West, particularly a Germany dependent on Russian oil and gas. Efforts must be made to begin a serious dialogue between Kiev and Moscow and resolve the crisis diplomatically. Doubtless, it will involve compromises and costs on both sides.