Russian Military Seizes Crimea as West Scrambles to Help Ukraine

Crisis leads to massive test for Obama and European leaders.

Russian soldiers guard the Orsk Russian landing ship anchored Sunday, March 2, 2014, in Ukraine's Black Sea port of Sevastopol.

Russian soldiers guard the Orsk Russian landing ship Sunday in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol. Russian forces took control of Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula on the Black Sea, in a bloodless offensive over the weekend.

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In a move that has left the West scrambling for options to respond, Russia has taken control of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, possibly signaling a continued march across parts of the nation in Eastern Europe.

Soldiers took control of the peninsula  home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and historically a key strategic point  in a bloodless offensive over the weekend. Troops also have secured a nearby ferry terminal in Kerch, The Associated Press reports, fanning fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be planning further military maneuvers throughout pro-Russia regions of Ukraine. 

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The troops speak Russian and are driving vehicles with Russian markings, the AP reports. 

Massive civil unrest has spread throughout Ukraine since November, culminating in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych roughly two weeks ago. The pro-Western interim government has sought to assert its legitimacy to its own people and to the world, while the U.S., U.K. and other European countries try to provide assistance without escalating the tense military situation. 

“There were, are and will be no grounds for the Russian Federation to launch military aggressions on the territories of Ukraine and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which is and will be part of the Ukrainian republic,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on Monday. He spoke alongside British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who is currently visiting Kiev. 

Hague called the ongoing situation the “biggest crisis” to face Europe this century, according to the BBC. Russia’s actions are unacceptable and require a strong response from the international community, he said. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sunday he also plans to travel to Kiev on Tuesday to meet with representatives of the new government and from Ukrainian civil society. 

A senior administration official said the U.S. is not currently considering a specific military response. 

"Our goal is to uphold the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, not to have military escalation," the official said. "I don't think we're focused right now on the notion of some U.S. military intervention." 

The U.S. and European Union are considering additional economic sanctions or other pressure that could potentially halt the Russian government’s incursion into the former Soviet country. 

Members of the G-7 economic group released a statement Sunday blasting what they called “the Russian Federation’s clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” and a “clear violation” of Russia’s obligations under the U.N. Charter. 

They announced they would boycott preparations for the upcoming G-8 summit scheduled to take place in the Russian city of Sochi in June until “the environment comes back where the G-8 is able to have a meaningful discussion.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron also said in a tweet it would be wrong for his fellow ministers to attend the Winter Paralympic Games to begin in Sochi on Friday. 

The G-7 countries say they will support International Monetary Fund aid to help the struggling Ukrainian economy. Massive populist protests began in November over Yanukovych's decision to receive a Russian bailout instead of signing new economic accords with the European Union.

President Barack Obama remains with few options for response to the crisis, considered by some to be one of the most consequential of his presidency. 

He spoke with his counterparts in the U.K., Poland and Germany over the weekend, all of whom expressed “grave concern over Russia’s clear violation” in Ukraine, according to a White House readout of those calls. 

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Russia expert Andrew Kuchins, with the D.C.-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Ukraine may have lost the Crimean peninsula to the Russians, but Western nations must act swiftly to stop further advancement. 

“We have to make absolutely clear – and in the most credible way possible – that Russian military intervention in other regions of Ukraine is a red line that will mean war with Ukrainian and NATO military forces if it is crossed,” he wrote Monday, calling for a repositioning of Ukrainian and NATO troops to the Black Sea region. 

Two U.S. Navy ships, the USS Taylor and the USS Mount Whitney, remain in the region. 

“If Ukraine's military and/or NATO is not prepared to take such measures, then we are simply letting ourselves look foolish with empty threats,” Kuchins said. “But doing nothing would be a terrible misjudgment. Putin has proven agile in asserting Russian interests, and for the West to be effective in its response will require immediate, focused, and forceful action to make Putin recalculate his risk/reward equation.”