The crisis in Ukraine has the United States, Europe and Russia in a diplomatic bind, analysts say, with little immediate prospect for a lasting solution.
Presidential elections in Ukraine are set to take place on May 25. But there is a growing fear amongst top U.S. and EU officials that instability and violence they say is backed by Russia will derail the vote.
With near daily clashes in east Ukraine, top U.S. and European diplomats on Tuesday warned that if Russian interference halts the election, there would be consequences.
“If Russian elements continue to sabotage these elections, then we stand ready to implement more sanctions,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said following talks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. “We will not sit idly by while Russian elements fan the flames of instability.”
But analysts say that so far, Western action – a combination of tough talk and targeted economic sanctions – has not calmed Ukraine and or led to fruitful dialogue with Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed to have shifted his confrontational tone on Wednesday, vowing to remove Russian troops from the Ukraine border and calling on pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to delay a referendum on to break away from Ukraine on May 11.
But White House Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded by saying there was no evidence a withdrawal had taken place. NATO also says it has not seen any a pullback of Russian troops. And separatist groups the Russian president’s call, pledging to go ahead with the referendums.
Still, some analysts say the Putin overture could pave the way for fruitful talks.
“Putin has likely been concerned by the escalating violence in the east,” said Thomas Graham, Senior Director at Kissinger Associates, Inc. and a former top advisor during the Bush administration. “Given how he has positioned himself - defense of Russian and Russian speakers - he is under pressure to send in troops.”
"But if he does it will not be another Crimea,” he added. “There will be bloodshed.”
Putin has calculated the time has come to give diplomacy a chance, says Graham, knowing that he can easily return to a harsher position should negotiations go nowhere.
The European problem
Between the United States and Europe, Europe stands to invite more pain – both financially and politically -- in trying to stop Putin’s moves to restore Russia’s place on the world stage, analysts say.
Consider this: about a quarter of the EU’s gas supplies come from Russia.
According to the New York Times, EU trade with Russia amounted to almost $370 billion in 2012, compared with U.S.-Russia trade of $26 billion.
For the United States, the issue is largely ideological – annexing Crimea has redrawn the map of Europe, setting a very dangerous precedent in violation of international law, analysts say.
And they say there is reason to believe that the Obama administration – while presenting a united front publically – wants Europe to take the lead in punishing Putin.
“I think there are definitely tensions,” said Kathleen McNamara, director of the Mortara Center for International Studies at Georgetown University.
“I think that Americans find it very hard to understand the nature of the European project, to understand the outlook that the Europeans have on foreign policy, which is very different from the much more activist, much more geopolitical view that we have in the United States,” McNamara said.
Which is why the West is somewhat hamstrung by its current policy in this crisis – one which has pushed the European Union way out of its comfort zone, according to McNamara.
“I think that it’s incredible cognitive dissonance because the EU was really founded on a rejection of this geo-political, territorial incursion. You know carving up the world…and they’ve been very, very successful amongst these great powers who had been fighting each other for centuries,” she said.
But Putin didn’t “read the memo” about the 21st century being a century of international law, McNamara said, putting Europe in a very uncomfortable position.
“It’s a situation for which the tools that they’ve developed and the perspectives that they’ve developed on how to how to create stability and how to create political order are really outside this particular situation,” she said.
Limits of sanctions
While the U.S. and Europe have slowly ratcheted up sanctions since March, they aim to punish wealthy people close to Putin in the hopes that the flight of investment and capital will force the Russian leader’s hand, analysts say.
“I don’t think the sanctions will work, certainly not the ones that have been levied at this point. And even ramping them up, going after individuals is not going to have a major impact,” Graham said.
Russia, he said, is prepared to accept a lot of pain, because Putin is not being driven by economics. In the case of Ukraine, national security and reclaiming Russia’s “greatness” is trumping economic concerns – at least, Graham said, in the short term.
“Could we make it more painful?” he asked. “Yes. We could go after various sectors – financial, energy and manufacturing in some way."
“But the point is if we did that, Russia could do some harm to us,” Graham said. “The problem that we’ve had with the sanctions is that both Washington and Brussels are trying to do this in a way that requires no sacrifice on the part of their populations.”
Obama administration officials have said they believe sanctions will have an impact in forcing a diplomatic solution.
Timothy Frye, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York, said that despite research showing that sanctions alone do little to force behavioral changes, the mere threat of additional sanctions can have an impact.
“That threat creates uncertainty around economic activity,” Frye said. “And the markets themselves can be effective even if U.S. and European policy is being seen as ineffective.”
Frye added there are signs that business leaders are re-evaluating their plans regarding future investment in Russia if only because the West might slap stronger economic bans on Moscow’s energy and financial sectors.
Ultimately, U.S. and EU leaders have said repeatedly that diplomacy – a negotiated political settlement -- is the real answer to the Ukraine crisis. Even Putin gave a nod to talks when he seemed to shift gears this week.
"What is needed in direct, full-fledged and equal dialogue between the Kyiv authorities and the representatives of people in southeast Ukraine," said Putin.
But if the way out is a political solution, channels of communication must be opened -and not between the most visible and senior representatives of the West, Russia and Ukraine, Graham said.
“The contacts are being conducted at a very high level, which isn’t conducive to deal-making,” she said, “because conversations at that level tend to be the stating of talking points and positions and don’t create the atmosphere of give and take you need.”
As for Europe, it appears it will continue to work Ukraine the way it has since the creation of the European Union, McNamara said.
“I think that we’re going to continue to see the EU trying to work international institutions, trying to work the sanctions, trying to work the carrots of economic aid,” she said. “But this is such a volatile and difficult situation that everyone is incredibly, and probably correctly, hesitant to jump in with two feet.”