Crimea Chess Match: Three Ways the Ukraine Standoff Could End

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It’s a tense moment in Ukraine to say the least: The United States is demanding that Russia start behaving responsibly. President Vladimir Putin is reserving the right to use force. Meanwhile Ukrainians are watching and wondering whether their country will be torn apart.

No one can say for sure what will happen, partly because the resolution of the crisis will depend on a man whose behavior has serious foreign policy analysts questioning whether he’s lost touch with reality.

But here are a few possible endgames for the chess match in Crimea, as outlined by the experts.

1. Putin backs down.

This would be the most favorable outcome for the United States: Some combination of diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and public shaming isolates the Russian leader and convinces Putin to back down from his takeover Crimea.

Russian troops go back to their barracks on the peninsula, and the Kremlin supports a process that leads to a presidential election recognized as legitimate across Ukraine. Not a single shot is fired. Everybody goes home happy.

It’s a nice thought — it’s also unlikely.

“I just don’t see the Russians getting their hooks out of Ukraine,” says Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Still, the United States is pulling the levers it can to achieve such an outcome. It has pulled out of prep meetings for the G-8 summit in Russia and is threatening to kick Russia out of the G-8 altogether. Putin doesn’t seem to care.

2. Stalemate.

Putin said Tuesday that Russian troops are in Crimea to protect ethnic Russians who are living in “terror” — a charge that Secretary of State John Kerry and the rest of the Western world say is ridiculous.

If the troops stay, Crimea could enter a long period of what Michael McFaul, the recently departed U.S. ambassador to Russia, called an “ambiguous sovereignty” — not fully part of Ukraine, not fully annexed into Russia.

There may be occasional flashpoints of tension, but no reconciliation and no escalation. There’s some precedent for an uncomfortable stalemate: In 2008, Russian forces chased the Georgian army out of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two separatist republics of Georgia.

Most of the world still considers the territories part of Georgia — most of the world except for Russia, that is. Russia still has troops in both places, and both use the ruble as currency. If Putin’s goal in 2008 was to expand his sphere of influence, he succeeded.

3. Escalation.

The new Ukrainian government decides it’s had enough and starts to fight back with military force. Russia responds by rolling more troops across the border into eastern Ukraine and finds itself fighting a counterinsurgency campaign.

Such a campaign would be fierce, the experts say. Crimea and eastern Ukraine lean toward Russia, for sure, but the population of ethnic Russians in Crimea is only about 60 percent. The rest, a substantial minority, are ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars.

“My guess is they’re being quiet now because there are Russian soldiers, but they’re not enthused about being ruled by Russia,” McFaul said.

If it comes to armed confrontation, “People are underestimating how much violence there would be, how long it would go,” he said. “It could go on for years.”

Of course, Russia could start an escalation, too. If Russian soldiers start shooting at Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea, all bets are off.

“I still don’t believe that we’re looking at a situation where the Russians will move in large-scale militarily,” Rumer said. “It’s still to my mind unlikely. We can’t rule it out. But then, everything we’ve seen happen so far we thought wouldn’t happen.”