Tensions in Ukraine are on the rise as Russia continues to tighten its grip on Crimea.
On Monday, an ultimatum was issued from Russia's Black Sea Fleet and delivered to Ukrainian forces in Crimea—the message from Russian naval forces was to surrender by 5:00 AM local time on Tuesday—or face an all-out assault.
Russia's move came on the heels of a stark warning issued by President Barack Obama, who said "there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine." Now as Russia continues to toe the line, Secretary of State John Kerry is being dispatched to Kiev. He told ABC's George Stephanopoulos today that “all options are on the table” when it comes to steps the U.S. can take to hold Russia accountable for its military movements in Ukraine.
Russia's moves in Crimea have challenged President Obama in a way that no other international crisis has to date.
“It’s the most important, most difficult foreign-policy test of his presidency,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat who became under secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, according to our partner The New York Times. “The stakes are very high for the president because he is the NATO leader. There’s no one in Europe who can approach him in power. He’s going to have to lead.”
In addition to challenges for President Obama, the situation is creating some of the greatest political and diplomatic tests for the international community in years.
"It is certainly the biggest crisis in Europe in the 21st Century and it will require all our diplomatic efforts, but also a great deal of strength in the Western world in order to deal with this satisfactorily," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC.
Natalia Antelava is in Ukraine reporting for PRI's The World. She provides a look at the rising tensions on the ground in Crimea. Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000 and is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, weighs in on the way forward for Ukraine, Russia and the international community.
The divisions in Crimea are currently "extremely tense," says Antelava, because the population make up of Crimea is very diverse. About 60 percent of Crimeans are ethnically Russian, and about 15 percent are of the indigenous Crimean Tatar population, with a large Ukrainian population as well. Antelava attended a demonstration of Putin supporters yesterday and said an argument broke out between the groups, with some supporters calling for the ouster of the indigenous Crimean Tatar population, while others were shouting against the Ukrainians.
"The divisions amongst them are quite extraordinary and deepened by the presence of the Russian troops," says Antelava. "There are people who are very worried that the presence of Russian troops will upset this very delicate ethnic balance here, and you can really feel that tension already."
Antelava says that people on the ground fear that they will be the victims of a larger international game that is playing out in Crimea.
"I think people realize very clearly that unless they manage not to allow outsiders to provoke them against each other, this is going to end very, very badly," she says.
Antelava adds that she has already seen this to some extent—while filling up at a gas station yesterday, an ethnic Tatar man was distraught about what the future held for family and said his Russian neighbors were turning against him.
"Many people are saying—including some ethnic Russians—that because of the presence of the Russian troops that all of this has really amplified," she says. "A lot of people I have been speaking to are very aware of how fragile the situation is."
Antelava says that for the last 48 hours Russian troops have been taking over various military bases around Crimea.
"At some of these bases there have been standoffs," she says. "Probably the Ukrainian Army will surrender because not allowing Russians into those bases will end up in bloodshed."
Ambassador Pifer says that unlike the situation in Georgia in 2008, there has been no threat to ethnic Russians in Crimea or to Russia's military installations.
"It looks like this was a manufactured crisis," he says. "There were a series of things that looked as if they were designed to provoke a Ukrainian military response in Crimea, and when the Ukrainians did not respond the Russians just went in on their own."
Echoing the sentiments of Britain's Hague, Ambassador Pifer says that this is a huge crisis for Europe and feels that Russia has "basically torn up the rule book." He adds that while many thought Russia would try to take steps to destabilize the new Ukrainian government through economic means, no one was expecting military intervention.
"I think people were caught off guard that Mr. Putin leaped over [economic sanctions] and went right for that military intervention in Crimea," says Ambassador Pifer.
In 1954, Crimea gained its independence from Russia and was later formally recognized as part of Ukraine. Ambassador Pifer says that while many recognize its independence, this area, with its large ethnic Russian population, is still viewed as part of Russia in the hearts of people.
"I think with Vladimir Putin, you have somebody who is not looking at Ukraine in those terms, you're looking at somebody who really does want to extend Russian influence in the post-Soviet space," says Ambassador Pifer. "He is now showing that he is resorting to means that people did not expect to push that ambition."
Ambassador Pifer adds that what is happening in Crimea now can absolutely be considered a Russian military occupation, adding that "there's no doubt about it." He says that escalating beyond this occupation could have large consequences.
"If Mr. Putin goes beyond that, there are big risks for Russia," he says. "A Russian military intervention in Eastern Ukraine would lead to a situation where some Ukrainian military units would fight, there would be Ukrainian nationalists from Western Ukraine who I believe would head East and conduct basically a guerrilla war. It could be very nasty for Russia, and my hope is that the Russian military understands this and is telling Mr. Putin, 'This is not something we want to get into.'"