It now seems almost certain that this weekend’s referendum by the Crimean parliament on joining the Russian Federation will pass. There is also a real threat that Russian president Vladimir Putin will seek to follow up that referendum by announcing Russian plans to incorporate Crimea into the Russian Federation. These moves would represent not only a major escalation in the present confrontation between Russia and the West, but a potential reordering of an international system which was unique for the absence of overt hostility between major powers.
Beyond ushering in a protracted period of renewed diplomatic and economic confrontation between Russia and the West, annexation of Crimea will exacerbate tensions within Ukraine itself. In Ukraine, a Russian declaration of annexation would heighten tensions between Crimea and the rest of the country, and create friction within eastern Ukraine, which is far from united on the question of joining Russia. Left unchecked, annexation could also expose rifts within the transatlantic alliance, an outcome, no doubt, sought by Putin.
While foreign ministers have been meeting and heads of government have been on the phone with one another, the time has come for the major Western powers to come together and hash out a firm, common strategy to address the present crisis, and avert a more serious one. To that end, President Obama should convene a meeting of the Quad—the United States, France, Germany, and the UK—plus Ukraine’s neighbor to the West, Poland, to work out a two-part package for dealing with the crisis. The Quad was once the forum of choice to forge broader transatlantic unity on critical foreign-policy issues. Reviving it, and expanding it to include new powers, can add muscle to U.S. diplomacy in the present crisis. First, the Quad plus 1 would spell out a diplomatic resolution for Crimea, which would grant it greater political autonomy within a united Ukraine, while preserving existing Russian military basing rights in Sevastopol, and also providing for the protection of ethnic Russian rights and cultural heritage throughout Ukraine. In return, Russia would agree to accept the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and to commit itself not to take destabilizing steps in the run-up to the May 25 presidential election in Ukraine. To guarantee the rights of all Ukrainians to participate freely in such an election, the five nations would propose international monitoring mutually agreeable to Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, and the United States. Second, the group of major powers would also outline financial and other sanctions against Russia, which would go beyond the recently announced Magnitsky-style freezes on assets and visa denials, to move toward a much more far-reaching regime that would limit foreign investment in Russia and block access of Russian banks and companies to western sources of financing. Russia is far more vulnerable to global international economic pressure than the Soviet Union, owing to its much deeper integration into the global financial system. In addition, the group should agree to target the assets of specific oligarchs with close ties to Putin. The United States has already undertaken many of these measures; to be maximally effective, Europe must do the same.
Assuming President Obama is able to work out an agreement with major allies, coupled with strong sanctions measures, that meeting should be followed by an offer by the major powers, together with the EU President, to meet with Moscow. The need for Western backing and leadership is clear, as is the potential impact for this crisis to reach beyond Ukraine’s borders.
So as to clearly signal that the West is not negotiating over the head of the Kiev government, the proposal would be developed in close cooperation with the Ukrainian government, whose input and approval would be essential. Then, in a Western-Russia summit, Putin would be confronted with a choice: a face-saving opportunity to declare a victory in protecting Russian rights in Crimea, or greater political and economic isolation of Russia itself.
Forging agreement among the major powers, at the earliest possible time, would be the most effective way to send a strong and urgent signal to Putin that the United States and Europe are united in their response to his provocations. Even action after this weekend’s referendum would send a strong message. Putin has been able to move rapidly, because the EU is internally divided and structurally incapable of rapid response. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have been forceful in condemning Russian aggression, and imposing unilateral sanctions, even while the EU continues to debate.
But, since the 1990s, Washington and its major European allies have lost their muscle memory on how they once consulted and acted quickly together in the face of security threats. Consultation among the major transatlantic powers was essential to responding to Russian threats and provocations during the Cold War, and can serve the same function in the current crisis. Without such high-level diplomacy and the threat of enhanced sanctions, the referendum this weekend coupled with Russia’s efforts to incorporate Crimea could lead to another round of further escalation, with unpredictable and dangerous results.
Richard Burt, a member of the Board of the Atlantic Council, served in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Lee Feinstein, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, served in the Obama and Clinton administrations. They are former U.S. ambassadors, respectively, to Germany and Poland.