U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Paris on March 30, 2014, before the start of their meeting at the Russian ambassador's residence about the situation in Ukraine.

How to Defuse the Ukraine Crisis

The way to respond to Russia is not with Cold War rhetoric. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Paris on March 30, 2014, before the start of their meeting at the Russian ambassador's residence about the situation in Ukraine.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, left, shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

By + More

Returning in March from transatlantic dialogues in Poland and Germany in which I and other policy types from Washington discussed the situation in Ukraine and Crimea with our policymaking counterparts from Warsaw, Berlin and Kiev, there is little question that we are on the brink of a potential, full-blown escalation of violence. The only positive sign in the past few days that might preempt this potential are the conversations commencing between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

From Washington to Warsaw, the Cold War is quickly becoming resuscitated – if only, for the moment, in rhetoric. This is an extremely dangerous and precarious situation; the tinder box is volatile and a mere match could light a wildfire of uncontrollable proportions. The missile defense shield conversations between the U.S. and Poland and the constant presence of 80,000 U.S. troops in the European Union have ensured that Russia remains on the ready.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. There is a way forward that both deescalates the Eurasian crisis, ensures that international law is reaffirmed, and provides vulnerable countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, with the assurance that their security and safety is a priority for the West.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Ukraine-Crimea crisis.]

Without question the U.S. should engage but, with the exception of some narrow and targeted sanctions, not in the way most of Washington has recommended. Ramping up military rhetoric, with a focus on bolstering NATO funding and forces, will only further pin Russian President Vladimir Putin in an antagonistic and intractable position.

If we ultimately want to deescalate the situation, for the benefit of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics that also feel vulnerable, there is an entirely different conversation that we must have, and it’s an economic and diplomatic one.

On the economic front, if we want to ensure that the people of Ukraine are protected from foreign interference (and are referendum-proof) we must equip them with the economic security and stability they require. The instability that plagues Ukraine can be offset through an economic development agenda that only the U.S. and Western Europe can provide – a Marshall Plan of sorts.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Vladimir Putin and Russia.]

As much as this conflict is about Western versus Eastern identity, it is also about sustainable livelihoods. And while billions of dollars in loan relief is an essential part of that mix, something more is merited if we want to remedy the risk associated with vulnerable, and thus combustible, communities.

The ties that currently bind the E.U. and Russia should be fortified, not forgotten. The business community, now more than ever, must be called upon to do diplomacy, lest their markets and the policymakers and public that support them, be undermined or ultimately destroyed. The E.U.’s dependency on Russia for energy should not be usurped by an influx of energy-intensive and environmentally-detrimental fracked shale gas from the U.S., as some have suggested, but rather be the foundation on which business-based dialogues take place. This is how you make an intractable situation more tractable.

On the diplomatic front, if we want to reaffirm the rule of law, then we must take a hard look at what precedent must be set regarding sovereignty and secession. Russia is not the only veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member to flout international norms. Whether it’s the U.S. contravening international law and sovereign status of nations throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Central and South Asia, or U.S. support for secessionist strategies and autonomous efforts in Somalia, South Sudan, the Balkans, India-Pakistan or the U.K. and the Falklands, there is a trend here.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

Now is the time, then, to set a new standard, perhaps at the International Court of Justice, to ensure this doesn’t continue to happen, whether in Eastern Europe or East Africa. As Transdniestria, which has already declared independence from Moldova, has formally requested Russia’s protection, we can expect a Crimean-like conversation to creep up again sometime soon.

To be clear, we shouldn’t be surprised with the ever-shifting notion of the nation-state concept. All one has to do is look at how nation-state status has evolved over the last fifty years. Now nearing 200 sovereign states, we’ve essentially doubled the number since the 1950s, and that number is, undoubtedly, due to grow in the next 50 years as independent movements break away from their host country or other countries absorb breakaway movements.

The way to respond to these ebbs and flows is not through war rhetoric or military ramp-up. That is a surefire way to ripen a fertile ground for war to quickly blossom and beckon other nefarious players to play proxy wars in neighboring countries or continents. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again. Unless we want to wage another small-scale proxy war with Russia, the only way forward is through ways and means that deescalate the likelihood of military confrontation, not increase it. There are ways to do that, and at least for now they must be exhausted. Anything less would be a dereliction of diplomatic duty.