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Conflict or compromise: 5 possible directions in Ukraine

By Tom Foreman, CNN
updated 12:13 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Top officials in the West, Russia and Ukraine seek an end to the crisis
  • Possible end games include everything from war to Russian retreat
  • The most likely outcome involves Russia retreating with conditions

(CNN) -- As so often happens in big international confrontations, Ukraine is devolving into a complicated mess from which no one has yet outlined a reasonable retreat acceptable to all sides. Russia did not push into Crimea just to put its tanks in reverse and go home. The Ukrainian government can't very well tolerate a land grab within 400 miles of Kiev. And the big Western powers, including the United States, have raised so many threats and objections, they will look weak, dishonest, or both if nothing is done now.

So let's sort through some options as laid out by many of our expert analysts on CNN.

1) Going to the guns: This is a good one to dispense with first, because no one wants it. Ukraine, absent massive and sustained outside help, would be decimated by the Russian bear. The Russians are better trained, better equipped and better funded. By virtue of geography and their superior navy, they would start the fight with Ukraine 60% encircled by hostile forces. But Russia has reason to keep the pistols holstered, too. Turning eastern Ukraine into a battlefield would disrupt critical industry, agriculture, and oil and gas sales in the region for years. Also, a pitched battle could draw in other players, and then the whole World War III discussion lights up.

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Map of Crimea  Map of Crimea
Map of CrimeaMap of Crimea

2) Russia retreats: Unlikely. They didn't steam into Crimea just for a getaway weekend. The Russians have important assets to protect there, and that does not necessarily mean the 60% of the Crimean population that grew up speaking Russian. The vaunted Black Sea Fleet counts on its Sevastopol port for year-round access (via Istanbul) to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Arguably, the fear of losing that route to an unfriendly Ukrainian government is what drove Russia to take Crimea in the first place.

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3) Russia retreats with some conditions: More likely. What conditions? Crimean leaders have already voted to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia which was home until 1954, when Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine. Crimean voters will have a chance to ratify or reject this decision in the next couple of weeks, even as Kiev says they have no right to redraw the national borders. In any event, this is one possibility: Crimea becomes a part of Russia, or a semi-independent nation with great affection for Russia (read: a puppet state ready to do whatever Moscow wants). Or Russia gets a permanent agreement to turn Sevastopol into Russian territory, like the arrangement the United States has with Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. No matter how that plays out, Russia denies ever having designs on all of this -- even as the mysterious troops in the peninsula melt away, the rest of the world grumbles, and Ukraine goes back to trying to pay its debts.

4) Russia advances: Not content with Crimea and eager to show Kiev just who they are messing with, the Russians storm across the border and take much of eastern Ukraine. No one knows if this is in Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans, but if it happens ... see option No. 1.

5) The Western world turns on the squeeze play: The White House appears to want a unified effort in which nations all over the globe use their political and economic might to punish Russia and leave the new Ukrainian government triumphant. Problem is, several big countries seem reluctant to take that course, and unless everyone is on the same page, any sanctions would be weakened. And even though it was hit hard in 2008 by the recession, Russia is not Syria, Iran, or North Korea. This is a big nation that is unlikely to buckle quickly to any amount of pressure.

U.S. intelligence under fire over Ukraine

The takeaway: There are plenty of other possibilities, but conventional wisdom says these are the most likely options at the moment. The biggest danger? Everyone is wrong ... and some unforeseen, uncontrolled options arise, making the situation not better, but even worse.

READ: Anchor quits: I can't be part of network 'that whitewashes' Putin's actions

MAP: How Ukraine is divided

READ: Live updates from the crisis in Ukraine

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