(Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Michael O'Hanlon
March 3 (Reuters) - In a crisis moving extremely fast, it is dangerous to say this, but I'm at least somewhat less concerned about this upheaval in Ukraine than other people seem to be, for a couple of reasons.
One, to be blunt, is that Ukraine is not in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The United States is not militarily obliged to come to the defense of a country that is, in some degree, in peril. For Americans, that is some solace - for we have had more than enough of war in recent years. (I am, for similar reasons, against inviting Ukraine into NATO in the future - unless the basic character of the alliance changes and even Russia could be a part - which would clearly require some change in Russia as well.)
We do, of course, owe Ukrainians assistance. Not just for their 1990s decision to give up the nuclear weapons they inherited from the Soviet Union, but for their contributions to the war in Iraq and their commitment to democracy and to peaceful relations among states. So I am hardly suggesting that we ignore the high stakes here, or the Ukrainian people's legitimate desires for self-determination and economic progress.
The main reason for my relative lack of anxiety derives from the fundamentals of the situation in Ukraine. It is serious, to be sure. But it does not look likely to become catastrophic.
As coercive as Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in this crisis, there have been limits. He hasn't killed people (so far at least, as of this writing on Monday, March 3). He is apparently trying to make a show of force in a way that gets a specific task done. He wants to protect his military bases in Crimea, where the Russian Black Sea Fleet (historically one of Russia's big four) is based.
He also wants to assert certain prerogatives in a former Soviet republic. He wants, he says, to protect fellow ethnic Russians and Russian speakers - of whom there are many in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
There is nothing to admire about how Putin has proceeded. His approach is indeed 19th century-ish, as Secretary of State John Kerry said on Face the Nation Sunday. But it's not totally surprising for the way great powers behave. Even in this century.
For example, the main distinction to draw between what Putin has just done in Crimea and what Washington did in Panama in 1989 - when a dictatorial government started to mistreat its own people badly and jeopardize our bases and access to the Panama Canal - is that we were more patient, and more justified, in making the decision to invade. In fact, we went further in that crisis than Putin is likely to do here.
But Putin saw a government in Ukraine that he believed illegitimate. From a certain perspective, it had violated the February 21 deal that would have led to early elections, almost as soon as it was reached. He also saw the Ukrainian parliament last week look to degrade the status of the Russian language within Ukraine - an understandable reaction by angry Ukrainians at one level, to be sure, but also a provocation and a pointless one.
I am hardly defending Putin. But I doubt very much that he is seeking to forcibly annex part of Ukraine. Part of his worldview may desire that, to be sure. But we have a pretty strong set of potential economic sanctions and Putin knows it.
The West has gotten a lot better at applying sanctions - largely because of the Iran experience, and also our dealings with North Korea, and before that Serbia. The international community now knows how to do this - how to go after the banking sector, the individual wealth of top Russian leaders, their visa travel rights, and so on.
We can try to help Europe gain new sources of energy as well, a point Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute wisely made when we appeared together Sunday on Face the Nation. Russia cannot thrive if the Western world collectively seeks to punish Putin and to do so for a considerable period.
Were the current crisis to escalate to a bad situation - which it hasn't yet - and Ukraine to face civil warfare and an invasion by Russia to back up one side, then I think these kinds of tools would be applied. They'd be effective and Putin knows it.
So I'm relatively confident he won't take this gamble, provided we are clear in our communications about how we would respond.
That said, the West's policy now needs to focus on making sure he doesn't invade. He should be asked to declare no plans for forcible annexation of any part of Ukraine - or any longer military stay in any part of Ukraine than absolutely necessary. He should allow international monitors and mediators to help verify the protection of various populations within Ukraine - a plan he reportedly discussed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday. He should also work toward a new deal with the Ukrainian government that will be respected by all. The Ukrainian government also needs to continue to show that it is seeking to include and represent Ukrainians of all major parts of the country and society.
Moscow must restore Ukraine's full sovereignty in short order - while ensuring protection for Russian speakers as noted above. Putin should continue to have his military units in Crimea refrain from the use of force, and also to stop trying to recruit defectors from the Ukrainian army into their general ranks. No further Russian troop mobilizations or large-scale additional reinforcements of Russian positions in Ukraine should occur.
Chances are high that this crisis can still be contained and ultimately defused. We need to distinguish between the unpleasant things that have already happened and the catastrophic possibilities that, with good policy and clear warnings as well as inducements to all relevant parties, we can probably still prevent. (Michael O'Hanlon)