WASHINGTON – The crisis in Ukraine has much broader implications than just a country looking westward over objections from Russia.
According to regional sources, the crisis reflects a new phase of the Cold War that westerners thought had come to an end in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The United States and Russia are asserting their influence throughout Eurasia and beyond while attempting to maintain limits on the use of raw military power.
For Russia, sources say, Ukraine is critical to its national security interests, especially in stemming the influence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and the United States.
For the U.S., Ukraine is a tool to keep Russia in check as it seeks to expand its influence not only in Eastern Europe but also in Western Europe.
The U.S. has threatened to increase sanctions, but the political punishments so far have been largely ineffective.
Washington also is placing a small contingent of additional military assets in NATO countries that have ethnic Russian populations to prevent Putin from trying to instigate turmoil.
Putin’s next targets appear to be the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Poland and Finland also could be in his sites. All but Finland are NATO members.
In response, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has announced stepped-up military patrols along the eastern border.
Rasmussen emphasized that the move was to act as a deterrent rather than prepare for a confrontation.
“Our decisions today are about defense, deterrence and de-escalation,” Rasmussen said in a statement. “NATO will protect every ally and defend against any threat against our fundamental security.”
At the same time, U.S. lawmakers have asked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to get its NATO allies to “cease all trade involving military equipment with Russia.”
However, the NATO allies could turn out to be their own worst enemy.
Earlier this month, NATO decided to suspend military and civilian cooperation with Russia. That meant that Russian officials, except for the Russian ambassador and support staff, would be barred from NATO headquarters.
Yet, a number of these NATO countries continue to work on contracts with Moscow that some members of Congress want stopped.
For example, Britain is continuing with a Military Technical Cooperation Agreement with Moscow that would allow British and Russian arms manufacturers to share technical data.
France still intends to sell Russia two Mistral warships which would give Moscow a quick-response, counter-terrorism capability, especially in the region of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.
The U.S., meantime, is continuing plans to obtain – presumably for Afghanistan security forces – 22 more Russian Mi-17 helicopters, even though the U.S. intends to pull out of the country completely by the end of the year.
The deal is worth more than $550 million with the Russian manufacturer Rosoboronexport. It is part of some $1 billion the U.S. has spent on Russian helicopters for the Kabul government
“We believe the United States must show leadership by terminating all defense contracts with Russia and ask that you strongly encourage our NATO allies and OSCE (Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe) participating states to take similar actions,” said a letter to Kerry signed by 38 lawmakers.
“We urge you to lead the coordination among NATO and OSCE to halt trade involving military equipment with Russia immediately. We believe this is a crucial step in re-establishing a deterrent against further Russian aggression and strengthening the impact of our targeted economic sanctions against Russia,” the letter said.
Running out the clock
Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, only needs to hold tight against U.S. and European action against his activities in Ukraine, which will experience further internal problems that could prompt the country to fracture.
In that case, it will be up to the Europeans and the U.S. to financially bail out Ukraine. However, they have their own economic problems.
Kiev will be undertaking a series of economic austerity measures such as a cut in pensions and other social spending that are sure to prompt more division in the country.
Moscow is expected to play off the divisions and exploit Ukraine’s economic dependence on Russia, especially for natural gas, the price of which has been raised to market standards, affecting an already cash-strapped country.
To underscore economic pressures on the country, Moscow will demand that its existing bill of billions of dollars be paid before it will allow further gas exports. The development also could affect Europe, since it relies on the same pipelines that bring natural gas to Ukraine.
The strategy will allow Moscow to slowly and steadily regain its influence in this pivotal country and use it as a base for further exploitation of ethnic Russians in the neighboring NATO countries.