Russia’s annexation of Crimea and possible future incursions into eastern Ukraine could reshape the geopolitical map of Europe and derail cooperation between Moscow and the West for years to come.

Carnegie experts from around the world assess Ukraine’s instability and how the conflict’s fallout will impact global security challenges. Here’s how the crisis will influence Putin’s next moves, European security, U.S. strategy, efforts to calm the Syrian war, negotiations to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and China’s foreign policy.

How stable is Ukraine?

Eugene Rumer: Ukraine is a long way away from stability after suffering a violent change of government, an annexation of a portion of its territory by a vastly bigger and more powerful neighbor, and—undoubtedly—economic contraction.

Eugene Rumer
Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, is a senior fellow and the director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program.
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As if all that wasn’t enough, southeastern Ukraine is still facing the threat of Russian military intervention. Amid reports of skirmishes and violent protests involving provocateurs and vigilantes in various parts of the country, members of the general public remain fearful for their future. There are also reports of citizens buying guns and weapons being distributed from military armories to the public and paramilitary groups.  And a new national guard and local self-defense units are being organized.  

The central government in Kyiv looks decidedly unlike Ukraine, lacking some key party and regional representation. The most committed revolutionaries, distrustful of the provisional government and its handling of the Crimea crisis, continue their occupation of the Maidan and threaten another uprising if they feel betrayed by the government.

The presidential election is scheduled to take place in two months, and given the short time left to prepare, it runs the risk of being poorly organized and plagued by irregularities that could threaten its legitimacy. Little has been heard lately from Ukraine’s powerful business elite, but with its record of dominating the country’s politics and economy, it is surely maneuvering behind the scenes to protect its corporate interests.

Moreover, Russia’s annexation of Crimea has raised the specter of separatism in other parts of Ukraine. In the West, where parts of the country were carved out of Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Poland, local residents may look to their more prosperous co-ethnics across the border where life is more stable and well-off. What is to keep them from following in Crimea’s footsteps?

Ukraine’s record after the 2004 Orange Revolution suggests caution with respect to its current prospects. Following their triumph on the Maidan and then at the polls, the new team became mired in factional rivalries and allegations of corruption. Critical reforms were never implemented, and Ukrainians, having lost confidence in the revolutionaries, elected Viktor Yanukovych as their next leader. Many members of the provisional government today bring with them the baggage of that era, and their past record does not inspire optimism about a fresh start.

If there is a silver lining it is paradoxically found in the dire circumstances in which Ukraine has found itself after the revolution and the loss of Crimea. The Fatherland is in danger!—this could be the rallying cry for all citizens, across all ethnic groups and political affiliations. If they don’t come together now in a show of national unity and common purpose, when?

What do Moscow’s moves indicate about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy strategy?

Andrew S. Weiss: The annexation of Crimea is clearly a watershed moment in Putin’s foreign policy. As my colleague Dmitri Trenin has written, Putin’s foreign policy approach has evolved multiple times during his tenure as head of state.  

Andrew S. Weiss
Weiss is the James Family Chair and vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, where he oversees research on Russia and Eurasia.

Putin’s more competitive stance toward the West dates back to the immediate aftermath of the badly flawed Duma elections in December 2011 when he accused then U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton of fomenting antigovernment street demonstrations. From that point onward, Putin basically torpedoed the patterns of cooperation and trust that had been built up between Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev during the heyday of the U.S.-Russia “reset.”

Putin has also been signaling for some time now that he sees reestablishing Russian influence over the political and economic development of neighboring countries via the establishment of a Eurasian Union as the centerpiece of his third term in office.

For many years, outside experts (myself included) have focused on Putin’s pragmatic streak. That tendency was visible in any number of areas—Putin’s willingness to support the reset from behind the scenes, joint diplomatic efforts and sanctions aimed at Iran’s nuclear program, and transit across Russia and neighboring states of U.S. military personnel and matériel headed for Afghanistan.

Putin’s March 18 bombshell speech before Russian parliamentarians seems to throw most of that previous pattern out the window. As has been widely reported, Putin went on at length about his grievances toward the West and took a distinctly confrontational stance. He also spoke about Russians as the world’s most divided nation and challenged the legitimacy of Ukraine’s current borders. Both statements have rather worrying long-term implications for Russia’s neighbors and major powers alike.

What does Russia’s involvement in Ukraine mean for Europe’s security?

Ulrich Speck: The annexation of Crimea and the threat posed by Russian troops massing on the Russian side of the Ukrainian border are bringing what had been considered a thing of the past back to Europe: territorial conflict and the change of borders by force.

Ulrich Speck
Speck was a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the European Union’s foreign policy and Europe’s strategic role in a changing global environment.
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Europe has a long history of great-power competition and conflict. In the east, borders have been weak and unstable for centuries. Especially in the first half of the twentieth century, Central and Eastern European countries were pushed around and their populations abused by great powers with unprecedented brutality.

With the rebuilding of Western Europe after 1945 and the reunification of the continent after 1989, Europeans thought they had overcome this type of power politics. Embedded in NATO and the EU, they were convinced that they had entered a new “postmodern” era where soft power replaced hard power and international law created the foundation of a mutually beneficial order—at least on their continent. Now all these assumptions are being questioned. Old-style power politics are back.

Europeans need to ask themselves hard questions. Are they willing to confront Russia? Is Russia going to challenge the borders of NATO? And how should Europe respond?  

Europeans conveniently delegated questions of hard power and strategy to the United States. While America remains a security partner and NATO actually seems to somehow have come back into the game, Europeans must take on a more active role in the transatlantic security alliance and shoulder more of the burden of their own security.

There is still hope that relations with Russia can be restored. But the last weeks have made Europeans look into the abyss of a Hobbesian world that they were sure to have left behind. In order to be sustainable, Europe’s paradise needs to be backed up with European power. History is back.

What impact does the situation have on U.S. strategy?

Weiss: This is a more complicated question than one might assume at first glance. Ukraine’s geopolitical significance was widely recognized in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse. But over time, the imperatives associated with that geopolitical importance seemed to ebb as the outside world began to take the country’s independence and territorial integrity for granted.

It also didn’t help matters that Ukraine became mired in a series of problems largely of its own making in the aftermath of the 2004 Orange Revolution—dysfunctional governance and fractious intra-elite politics at home matched by shocking levels of corruption and economic stagnation.  

Still, Putin’s Ukraine gambit basically resets the country’s overall significance. And further escalation of the crisis (for example, a wider Russian military incursion into southern or eastern Ukraine) could trigger a more serious regional crisis.  

U.S. and European policy toward Russia, its immediate neighborhood, and the continent as a whole has until now been premised on respect for several basic principles, including peaceful resolution of disputes and mutual respect of each other’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Now that Russia has challenged these norms head-on, it appears that a new strategy will be required.

The immediate question is how to diminish Russia’s ability to threaten its neighbors. That will not be easy by any means, and the West’s political, economic, and military posture toward Russia is obviously in a state of flux at the moment.

I would expect the United States and EU to continue to attempt in the near term to deter Moscow through the threat of additional sanctions against key sectors of the Russian economy. Such threats are not a magic bullet by any means, which raises the broader question of how effectively a divided West can mobilize a variety of tools to limit the new threat Russia poses to peace and stability in this important region. We have a long and potentially very unsettled period ahead of us.

Will tensions over Ukraine hurt international efforts to end the Syrian war?

Lina Khatib: The crisis in Ukraine has stolen the limelight from the Syrian conflict. The EU and the United States have shifted their focus to Ukraine as the Syrian regime continues to gain ground militarily, and as calls by the Syrian opposition for further international support remain largely unanswered.

Lina Khatib
Khatib was director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Previously, she was the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
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Putin’s stance toward Crimea has increased Assad’s confidence, which is only bolstered by recent military gains on the ground in Yabroud, a rebel stronghold close to the Lebanese border. This double “success” makes it less likely in the short term that Russia will push for a resolution in Syria.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine can be seen as yet another example of Russia’s resurrected sense of empowerment. If the international community does not act decisively regarding Ukraine, Russia will not be forced to compromise on Crimea—which is more important for it strategically than Syria—and might feel less inclined to make the smaller compromise on Syria.

But if the international community effectively uses sanctions and diplomatic means to push Russia to resolve the Ukraine crisis, Moscow might decide to compromise on Syria in return for a more favorable agreement in Ukraine. The chemical weapons deal with Damascus, for example, which is taking longer to implement than originally agreed, could be an opening for Russia to justify a modified stance toward the Assad regime.

Will tensions over Ukraine hurt international efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis?

George Perkovich: Unlike in Crimea and in Syria, Russia does not have decisive leverage in the Iranian contest. Identifying leverage is key because Putin’s first instinct is always to see where he can press and exert his will without risk.

George Perkovich
Perkovich works primarily on nuclear strategy and nonproliferation issues; cyberconflict; and new approaches to international public-private management of strategic technologies.
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But even if Russia had a lot of leverage over the Iran contest, Moscow’s objectives are not as divergent with the West’s as they are regarding Ukraine and Syria. Russia really does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Putin would prefer that somehow Iran would live up to its commitments not to acquire nuclear weapons and at the same time would continue to have terrible relations with the United States and the West. These preferences give Russia plenty of room to allow diplomacy with Iran to proceed.

In terms of leverage, Moscow could undermine enforcement of existing sanctions and thereby relieve economic pressure on Iran. But the Iranian government wants a breakthrough in relations with the United States, the relief of banking and other financial sanctions, and an end to isolation.

Russia cannot provide these gains—the United States and the EU can.  

Russia could have more leverage if and when diplomacy with Iran breaks down. Then, Russia could block the imposition of new UN sanctions. This would add to the general rupture in Russia’s relations with the West. Depending on where things are with Ukraine, the West could then feel added impetus to ratchet up sanctions on Russia. Conversely, if Russia wanted, it could quietly make its cooperation in tightening sanctions on Iran depend on the West not tightening sanctions on Russia.

How does the crisis impact China?

Douglas H. Paal: Beijing has struck an ambivalent posture regarding the Ukrainian crisis and the severing of Crimea, but it is not hurting China’s interests.

Douglas H. Paal
Paal previously served as vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International and as unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan.
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On the one hand, China has long opposed interference in other states’ affairs. Beijing has a difficult time justifying Moscow’s interference in Ukraine, but China also defines the imposition of international sanctions as a form of interference and in principle opposes these, except in very limited cases, such as on Iran and North Korea.

On the other hand, like Russia and Crimea, China has a claim on Taiwan and islands in the South and East China Seas that it would like to see realized and eventually legitimated. As China continues to deploy paramilitary maritime surveillance vessels and fishing fleets, it is trying to “create facts” in the disputed areas that will strengthen its claims. So, one can expect there is a certain unexpressed admiration in Beijing for Putin’s bold moves to assert control.

But the chosen legalistic method of Putin—the conduct of a referendum on Crimea’s future—is anathema to China. Beijing occupies autonomous regions within its recognized borders, especially Tibet and Xinjiang, where true plebiscites would not likely support continued Chinese rule. Moreover, the polling record pretty clearly suggests that a referendum on Taiwan’s future would find the bulk of the population rejecting reunification with the mainland.

So Beijing has ended up sounding ambivalent and ineffectual. China abstained from (as Russia vetoed) a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Crimean referendum. Beijing condemned all violent acts, called for maintenance of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and urged international financial institutions to support Ukraine’s struggling economy. This places China neither on Russia’s side nor on the West’s.

Nevertheless, China stands to gain from the posture it has struck over the crisis.

First, Russia is isolating itself, leaving China to benefit by both refusing to join in the isolation and offering diplomatic space to Putin. Even if Beijing does not formally reject participation in sanctions on Moscow, its record of enforcement suggests it will hesitate to punish the Russians.

This is likely to increase their cohesiveness. China and Russia are closer to each other on the issues of the Syria conflict and Iran’s nuclear weapons development than to the Western parties, and they are likely to find it comfortable to get even closer to shape the outcomes more to their liking.

Second, China has been chafing at the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to Asia. Beijing will be relieved to see the United States bogged down in crises far from the Asia-Pacific region. This may give Beijing a sense that it can be more demanding of its fractious neighbors that are depending on visible signs of support from Washington.

Finally, although there will always be a natural wariness between a resource-deprived, population-rich China and a resource-rich, population-deprived Russia, they are more likely now than before to bridge sensitive gaps in their positions on high-tech arms sales to China and Chinese demands for a lower price for natural gas and oil than has been on offer from Russia.

A Chinese phrase for this is xingzai lehuo, or to take delight in other’s misfortunes. Despite the sympathies it has expressed, it is likely China feels itself better-off for the suffering in Ukraine.

Is this the dawn of a new strategic era in global affairs?

Weiss: I’m not so sure. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is no longer a global competitor to the United States and there is no strong ideological component that unifies and divides the international community with regard to Russia. Rather, what we see is a revisionist Russia (with somewhat limited capabilities to project force beyond its borders) that is challenging core principles of the international community. I can’t imagine many governments will rush to endorse Russia’s annexation of Crimea or even the principles that Moscow has cited to try to justify its actions.  

At the same time, the crisis exposes the considerable economic interdependency between Russia and the outside world. After the Soviet invasion it was relatively easy for then U.S. president Jimmy Carter to take steps like the grain embargo because he knew that the damage to the U.S. economy would be limited. A blanket move to curb Russia’s current major exports—oil, gas, and other primary commodities—could have far-reaching implications for the health of the global economy.   

Part of the problem with the tactics employed by Washington and the EU in response to the crisis is that they don’t contain much tactical flexibility. Sanctions have been imposed on several prominent individuals, many of whom also happen to be top Russian government officials (for example, Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov). The Obama administration has not provided a clear sense of how such persons might graduate from the sanctions list. The continued silence on this issue suggests it will be very hard to reestablish lines of communication with the Kremlin and that the incentive for any of these individuals to reconsider Russia’s policy toward Ukraine will be quite limited.

That paradox makes me wonder how successful the Western policy establishment will be in articulating a long-term vision for post-Crimea relations with Moscow.