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The Ukranian Crisis

Wire reports suggest that Russia has seized the government buildings in the Crimea:

Dozens of pro-Russian gunmen in combat fatigues seized parliament and government buildings on Ukraine's volatile Crimea peninsula Thursday as lawmakers in Kiev prepared to approve a pro-Western cabinet for the divided ex-Soviet state.

The dawn raid came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered snap combat readiness drills near the Ukrainian border, which raised fears of the Kremlin using its military muscle to sway the outcome of a three-month crisis that has pitted Moscow against against the West in a Cold War-style confrontation over the future of the strategic nation of 46 million.

The BBC says Russian forces on Ukraine's border are on high alert: "Russia has put 150,000 combat troops on high alert near its border with Ukraine. The Russian defence Ministry says it is taking measures to guarantee the safety of the Black Sea Fleet, which is based in Crimea."

For legal cover, the former president of the Ukraine has asked for Russian protection. "Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has released a statement saying he still considers himself president of Ukraine and asking the Russian authorities for protection."

Ukraine's acting interior minister has put internal security forces on high alert after reports that Russian proxies had seized buildings in the Crimea.

Meanwhile, according to Reuters, Ukraine said "it would regard any movements by Russian military in Crimea outside the Russian Black Sea fleet's base in Sevastopol as an act of aggression. Acting President Oleksander Turchinov issued the warning in the national parliament after armed men seized the regional government and parliament buildings in Crimea, where some ethnic Russians want the region to join the Russian Federation."

Another Reuters report says that "fighter jets along Russia's western borders have been put on combat alert, the Defence Ministry was quoted as saying on Thursday by Interfax news agency":

"Constant air patrols are being carried out by fighter jets in the border regions," Interfax quoted a ministry statement as saying. "From the moment they received the signal to be on high alert, the air force in the western military region left for the ... air bases."

The USS Mount Whitney has left the Black Sea and is currently reported in Istanbul, rumored to be on its way back to the Med.

It is obvious that a very dangerous international crisis has emerged in Eastern Europe. The following days will answer the following questions:

  1. Will Putin take the Crimea by force? And if so, will his ambitions be limited to simply securing the Black Sea Fleet's bases or are they more extensive?
  2. What else, besides issuing statements, are the Western powers, especially President Obama, prepared to do?

Particularly worrisome are reports that Viktor Yanukovych, who still considers himself president of the Ukraine, has invoked Russian protection. Yanukovych cannot merely be the president of the Crimea. Either he -- and the Russians -- rule over the whole of the Ukraine, or nothing at all. Of course Yanukovych may simply be putting on airs or being held up as a bargaining chip, but the stakes have never been higher.

So far, this crisis has been characterized by mutual miscalculation. If the West did not anticipate that the previous Ukranian government would renege on the EU deal, neither did Putin appear to recognize the power of the opposition. Both sides have blundered into this confrontation. The wild card is the Ukranians, who will now be pressed to deal, but who may not deal. Another source of uncertainty is the effect of national pride, which so absent in the West is yet a potent factor in Russia.

The last source of uncertainty is Western leadership. It seems fair to say there are differences between the EU leadership and Washington. Ordinarily, those fractures might not be vitally important. But as President Obama contemplates the ruins of his "reset" policy, all the defects of his leadership are magnified in this crisis. Things really matter now; the time for "fast and loose" is over.