Skip to main content

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.

U.S. stepping up presence near Ukraine
Ukraine: There is dialogue with Russia
Ukraine PM: Military option not off table
Tense calm in Ukraine
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.

Leaked call raises questions about who was behind sniper attacks in Ukraine

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
updated 7:12 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nearly six months since popular protests toppled Yanukovych, fighting between Ukraine's military and pro-Russia rebels continues.
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
Western leaders stepped up sanctions, but the Russian President shows no sign of backing down.
updated 8:36 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Europe's deteriorating relationship with Russia has hit its growth, even before food sanctions begin to bite.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
Despite mortar fire echoing in the distance, the international team combed through the wreckage of MH17.
updated 7:08 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
The road isn't easy -- past shelling and eerie separatist checkpoints. But where it leads is harder still.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
updated 8:26 PM EDT, Mon August 4, 2014
The Cold War aerial games of chicken portrayed in "Top Gun" are happening in real life again nearly 30 years later.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
More Russian aggression in Ukraine. More U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Moscow.
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Air accident investigators normally reach crash sites soon after a plane has gone down, what does the delay in reaching MH17 mean?
updated 8:01 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Deadly violence, ongoing tensions and the deliberate downing of a passenger airplane. Why should Americans worry?
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
The shooting down of MH17 may finally alert Washington and Europe to the danger of the conflict in Ukraine.
updated 7:04 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The United States and its allies are angrier at Russia now over Ukraine, but will they do anything more about it?
The U.S. releases satellite images it says shows the Russian military has fired across its border with Ukraine.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 4:37 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
updated 1:25 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on securing the MH17 crash site and negotiating with the separatists.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
updated 3:00 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
When passengers boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week, they couldn't have known they were about to fly over a battlefield.
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Increased fighting around the MH17 crash scene blocks international investigators. CNN's Kyung Lah reports.
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
In the tangled aftermath of the disaster, two narratives emerge -- one from most of the world subscribes to, and another from Russia.
ADVERTISEMENT