PRESIDENT Obama made the U.S. position on Russian aggression in Ukraine plain enough, but NATO members and other European neighbors offer a muddle of words and deeds.
Trade alliances and teetering economies are taking the edge off any hard, unified response to Russian military activities in southern Ukraine. The Crimean Peninsula looks toward Moscow, and is home to a Russian naval base.
After Obama issued a warning and backed away from various economic contacts, Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently pulled back the troops he deployed, but their status and location are in play.
The question appears to be less what the U.S. intends, but what will Germany do? And England, Ireland and other countries with economic ties to Russia, a primary energy supplier for Western Europe.
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Even Ukraine is conflicted at basic levels. The Obama administration promised to guarantee $1 billion in loans for the new government in Kiev, but Russian gas keeps the country running.
This is hardly a return of Cold War tensions because there is no stark ideological unity. Commentators such as political scientist Ian Bremmer talk about a collage of countries looking out for themselves. No G-8 or G-20, but G-0. Collective leverage disappears.
Even discussions about how to react to Russia have less to do with government-to-government impacts, and more to do with threatening the Russian oligarchies with limits on visas and fund transfers.
The tensions in Ukraine have three possible trajectories, explains Scott Radnitz, director of the University of Washington’s Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies:
Putin, who suffered a personal political humiliation with the collapse of the Russian-backed government in Kiev, may secure enough concessions using the Crimea as a bargaining chip to back away.
Putin could make the Crimea a de facto part of Russia, a strategic and personal win for him.
The worst case scenario, Radnitz said, is that Russia embraces all of Eastern Ukraine with its Soviet-style industrialized economy and cultural and language connections.
As a new government in Kiev gropes for legitimacy, European leaders must decide how to convert supportive sentiments into action.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).