Ukraine has been showing admirable restraint, probably because it knows too well the Russian narrative, if the Ukrainian forces were to shoot first. The Russian narrative already portrays the new government in Kyiv as the outcome of an illegitimate right-wing coup, intent on harming the Russian-speakers in the east of the country and in Crimea. The Russian occupation of Crime is justified, since the troops have been invited by the residents of Crimea, and such a request is legitimate in view of the illegal coup in Kyiv. If the Ukrainian forces were to make the first hostile move, such will be described as an act of aggression, and Russian military invasion would therefore be an act of defence of the people and of the Russian interests. Once the area is securely in the Russian hands, conduct a referendum, which will vote to secede from Ukraine.
Broadly, it is a kind of narrative that states often wish to portray in these situations, and it bears a resemblance to the recent 2008 war that led to the independence – recognized only by Russia and a select few other countries – of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, after the Georgian forces attempted to take the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, by military means. It is still unclear what exactly happened in the period leading up to the war between Russia and Georgia, as there are claims and counter-claims, but Mikheil Saakashvili decided to pull the first trigger. That justified Russian military intervention, and the rest is, as one might say, history.
Ukrainians are doing their best not to be placed in that position, all the while Russians are piling up the pressure on the Ukrainian forces in Crimea, forcing them to surrender or to hit out. The former is a humiliation and the total loss of control over the territory for Ukraine, and the latter a justification for Russian military action. It is hard to say what Ukraine can do in this situation, but to maintain its restraint and not to give any cause that Russia can use as a pretext for full-scale military actions, in the hope that the international opinion hardens against Russia, and there are concrete sanctions or threats thereof that would hurt Russia.
In the televisions series Yes, Prime Minister, the Foreign Office is said to have a four-stage strategy. As two top civil servants explain:
Sir Richard Wharton: In stage one, we say nothing is going to happen.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stage two, we say something may be about to happen, but we should do nothing about it.
Sir Richard Wharton: In stage three, we say that maybe we should do something about it, but there’s nothing we can do.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Stage four, we say maybe there was something we could have done, but it’s too late now.
Of course Yes, Prime Minister is a satire, but sometimes satires can be a good approximation of reality. In this four-stage strategy, it looks the current crisis is in stage three. Given Russia’s importance for energy supply to Europe, and the huge amount of Russian money of dubious provenance sloshing around in London, I am deeply sceptical that European countries, including the UK, will be willing to take really hard and effective measures against Russia over Ukraine.
In the event of a war, Ukraine will be left to its own devices: the west will not intervene militarily. Russia knows this. The question is whether the west can come up with credible economic and diplomatic threats forcing Russia to back down, before Russia brings Crimea totally under its control or any military exchanges take place. Russia is betting that the west will not come up with such threats. The situation, as it stands, will depend on what Russia does, and time looks like it is on Russia’s side.