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Hawkish Russia leaves West scrambling for answers

A man waves a Russian Navy flag as he stands among pro-Russian armed men blocking access to the Ukrainian frontier guard base in Balaklava, a small city not far from Sevastopol, on March 1, 2014
A man waves a Russian Navy flag as he stands among pro-Russian armed men blocking access to the Ukrainian frontier guard base in Balaklava, a small city not far from Sevastopol, on March 1, 2014

Europe and the United States appear to have been caught off-guard by Russia's move to send troops to Ukraine, analysts said Saturday, warning it would take more than condemnations and boycott threats to tame the Kremlin.

"Everybody was caught on the hop and everyone is playing it by ear right now," said Francois Heisbourg, from the French-based Foundation for Strategic Research.

The Russian parliament on Saturday approved President Vladimir Putin's request to send troops to Ukraine, days after a three-month protest movement ousted his ally Viktor Yanukovych and brought the pro-European opposition to power.

Pro-Russian militiamen have already de-facto annexed Crimea, a mostly Russian-speaking peninsula in eastern Ukraine where the Kremlin has long stationed part of its naval fleet.

The prospect of a fully-fledged Russian military invasion of its former satellite left Western capitals scrambling for an answer matching the scope of the crisis.

"There have been a series of warnings and condemnations... but it doesn't seem to have had results so far," said Joerg Forbrig, from the German Marshall Fund.

Unidentified armed individuals guard the Crimean Parliament building in Simferopol, the administrative center of Crimea, on March 1, 2014
Unidentified armed individuals guard the Crimean Parliament building in Simferopol, the administrative center of Crimea, on March 1, 2014

In the face of what he described as "potentially the worst crisis since the end of the Cold War", Forbrig advocated "much stronger political signals and pressure in the direction of Moscow."

Washington has warned that US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders could snub the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi if Moscow did not back down.

Britain said there could be "no excuse" for a military intervention in Ukraine while UN chief Ban Ki-moon called "for an immediate restoration of calm and direct dialogue".

France, Germany and Poland issued a joint statement on Friday, in a flurry of separate comments some observers say reveals how disorganised the West is in the face of Russia's one-upmanship.

Temuri Yakobashvili, a former Georgian ambassador in Washington, argued that the response had been too weak so far and called for a raft of tougher measures.

"What is under attack is not only one part of Ukraine... but the entire architecture of European security that was established after the Cold War," he said.

Yakobashvili listed a number of options, such as excluding Russia from the G8, imposing financial sanctions on top officials and moving NATO troops to the Black Sea.

"My preference would be to act in all directions simultaneously. Because only simple warnings, phone calls are not giving results," he said.

Andy Kuchins, programme director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Russia's takeover of Crimea was already a fait accompli.

"The hardest question is what are the actions that Europe and the US could do to actually force Mr Putin to reconsider," he said.

"On that score, I'm not very optimistic, regarding Crimea."

Pro-Russian activists hold a giant Russian flag as they rally in Simferopol, the administrative center of Crimea, on March 1, 2014
Pro-Russian activists hold a giant Russian flag as they rally in Simferopol, the administrative center of Crimea, on March 1, 2014

Roderic Lyne, who served as British ambassador to Russia between 2000 and 2004, urged the West against "megaphone diplomacy".

"The Russians are sabre-rattling -- if we counter that with sabre-rattling, you simply get escalation," said the former diplomat, now deputy chairman of the Chatham House think tank in London.

He argued it was crucial to engage in some "intensive private talking" with the Russians, and suggested that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would be a good person to deliver strong messages to Putin.

"The Russians haven't quite passed the point of no return yet... We are dangerously close to crossing that line, but we're not yet across it."

Kuchins explained that Putin, whose authority is total in the Kremlin, can make quicker and more decisive moves that an unwieldy Western camp that has struggled to show a united front since the Ukrainian crisis erupted in November.

He said the West may have no choice but to accept a Russian military presence in Ukraine short of taking military action of its own.

"The goal that we have to be thinking about very quickly, very quickly, is to prevent similar type of scenarios from happening in other regions," he said.

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