PARIS – Top diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union plan to meet in Geneva Thursday to try to defuse what has become one of the worst European security crises in decades.
But as tensions soar to dangerous levels in Ukraine, threatened with a split between its Russian-speaking east and EU-leaning west, how far is Russia prepared to go to assert control over the country and what options do Western countries and Kiev have to counter this?
Pro-Russia gunmen have taken over town halls and police stations in nearly 10 cities across Ukraine’s southeast — a move that shows strong similarities to what happened in Crimea prior to its annexation by Moscow.
Russia denies any links to the militants but Kiev thinks otherwise, accusing Moscow of wanting to destabilize the country to prove that the government has lost control.
“There is a real likelihood that this could get out of control. It’s a very dangerous game they’re playing,” said John Lough, an expert on Russia at the London-based Chatham House think tank.
“By upping the stakes, what they (Russia) want to do is get the U.S. and EU to the table, persuade them that only Russia has a realistic solution to these problems,” he said.
“They have many more levers than the EU and U.S. to influence Ukraine. They care very deeply about the future of Ukraine . . . whereas there are a lot of people in European capitals who have only just woken up to the fact that Ukraine is a very big country that is now very unstable.”
But analysts say Russia does not necessarily want to annex large swaths of the southeast like it did with Crimea.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin’s priority is to stop the West’s advance to the Russian border,” said Maria Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“Russia could be satisfied with a destabilized, de facto decentralized Ukraine — like now, with southern and eastern regions of the country that are not controlled by Kiev.”
The European Union and United States have imposed sanctions on Russian and Ukrainian officials and business leaders, including members of Putin’s inner circle, freezing their assets and issuing visa bans.
On Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed to expand the list of those hit with sanctions.
The French foreign ministry has said a high-level EU meeting could take place next week to implement wider-reaching economic sanctions, depending on the outcome of the Geneva talks.
“Vladimir Putin is more afraid of the Western banks than of the Western tanks,” said Andy Hunder, head of the London-based Ukrainian Institute.
“There is a lot of Russian money in places like London, and with sanctions targeting people who are close to him, they will start telling him he has to do something.”
But Lough said there are limits to what can be done, “particularly when EU countries don’t want to see their own companies hurt by Russian retaliation.”
“I would expect probably more investigations of the behavior of Russian companies in the European market,” Lough added.
He points to a long-standing major EU antitrust case being brought against Russia’s natural gas giant Gazprom as an example of what can be done.
But what would be more decisive, analysts say, is a longer-term EU decision to import the 25 percent of energy supplies it currently gets from Russia from elsewhere.
The new government in Kiev, meanwhile, has been unable to reassert control over the country.
It is hesitating to use force and is coming under increasing pressure from its supporters to act more decisively, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday warned it not to.
“You can’t send in tanks and at the same time hold talks. The use of force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva,” he said.
Still, Lipman said: “Ukraine may have very little power, but it has enough for the start of bloodshed. The risk of a large-scale war must constantly be kept in mind.”