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Ukraine crisis: Strong words, but diplomacy is bound to follow

Crimea is the prize of Putin’s presidency. There is no chance he will give it up

It is hard to escape the impression that the West – a term for obvious reasons back in vogue – is still struggling to catch up. In November, after Ukraine’s now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovych decided to take Moscow’s cash in preference to the European Union’s association agreement, the EU and the US slowly executed a complete linguistic U-turn, dropping their now-or-never rhetoric for a recognition of Ukraine’s borderland reality between East and West.

After Russia moved into Crimea, the EU and the US seemed trapped between passively accepting the fait accompli and declaring the Kremlin’s action to be illegal and not acceptable at all. They are now trying at once to punish Russia through selective sanctions, while holding something in reserve to deter Russia from nibbling away at any other bits of Ukraine. By reducing the G8 to the G7, they claim to have isolated Russia, even as members of the wider G20 mouth the diplomatic equivalent of “steady on”.

Those contradictions might explain the discomfort that could be sensed at President Barack Obama’s press conference. Not a natural warrior, he insisted that there could be no recognition of what had happened in Crimea, while dangling the prospect of “another path”, the purpose being “to solve this diplomatically”. The difficulty is that for the talking to begin, something is going to have to give something. What the West clearly wants is to turn the clock back on Crimea, if only temporarily and for appearance’s sake. To allow, say, for a “proper” referendum on joining Russia, as opposed to the “sloppy” one condemned by President Obama.

But it is hard to see Vladimir Putin agreeing to this. He may not have expected to preside over the return of this territory to Russia, but Crimea is the prize of his presidency. There is not the slightest chance that he will give it up.

Paradoxically, the best way ahead may lie through Kiev. The West may huff and puff about not accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but in ordering Ukraine’s troops to leave (while allowing them the choice of whether to stay on and serve Russia), the interim government has already conceded defeat.

The first serious Russian-Ukrainian diplomatic contact – at foreign minister level – took place on Monday at the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit that had brought Obama to The Hague. And what the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, had to say afterwards sounded almost reasonable (if you disregarded the small matter of Crimea): “We set forth our vision to establish good national dialogue,” he said, “taking into account all residents of Ukraine.”


Similarly, when the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, met Mr Lavrov, his emphasis appears to have been less on recriminations than on warning Russia about going any further. The fate of Crimea will have to remain prominent in the West’s rhetoric for a while – after all, the US and the UK had guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994.

There would also appear to be sharp disagreement in the western camp about how soon, and on what terms, the inevitable talking should begin. But if Kiev is preparing, however reluctantly, to “move on”, that may offer the US and the EU the diplomatic opening they need.