Europe is in the throes of its most dangerous crisis since the end of the cold war. When President Viktor Yanukovich, recently, was toppled in Kiev, the world wondered how the Kremlin would respond to the fall of its cherished ally and the threat that Ukraine might shift westwards.

But, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, gave his uncompromising answer when he effectively annexed Crimea, detaching the peninsula from the rest of Ukraine to which it legally belongs.

This is perhaps the most dangerous point in Europe’s history. Direct confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian forces will draw in the United States, one way or another. While there is still time, it’s extremely important to understand what each party involved is aiming for.

The headlines over the recent weeks have echoed the bad old days of the 20th century: Russian troops marching into someone else’s territory; Poland calling on NATO to help secure its borders; Americans and Russians trading angry charges at the United Nations. It definitely arouses a spine-chilling question: Are we seeing the dawn of a second Cold War between Russia and the West?

Cold War-tinged suspicions between Washington and Moscow are spiralling over the crisis in Ukraine despite the Obama administration’s efforts to tamp them down.

Instead of lowering tensions, attempts by senior US officials to calm the situation appear to be heightening the perception in Russia that developments in Ukraine have become an East-West duel for influence on the territory of the former Soviet Union. At the same time, reports of Russian military manoeuvres in and around Ukraine and its strategic southern Crimean peninsula have fuelled deep distrust of Russia in Washington and kindled fears of a repeat of Russia’s 2008 conflict with Georgia, another western-leaning former Soviet republic.

By entering Ukraine as a punishment for its revolution, Mr Putin has not only shown brazen disregard for international law. He has also created the very real possibility that Ukraine and Russia will be engulfed in a bloody conflict that could last for years.

In all of this, Mr Putin has taken his reputation for cold ruthlessness to new heights. Yet master tactician though he may be, the Russian leader cannot be certain where his actions will lead. The Kremlin’s interventions in Crimea had not brought bloodshed, largely because of the admirable restraint of the new Ukrainian government. But with tensions running so high, a major conflict involving Moscow and Kiev may not be contained for long.

Putin is bringing pressure on the new Ukrainian government by backing a secessionist movement in Crimea where three-fifths of the people speak Russian.

Actually, the first mistake in this context was committed by the Ukrainian revolutionaries when they abandoned the agreement of 23 February to create a national unity government. Moreover, the second grave error ‘and this one was entirely unforced’ was the new government’s decision to repeal the law giving Russian equal status as an official language in provinces with large Russian-speaking populations. It delighted Ukrainian-speaking ultra-nationalists in the west of the country, but it needlessly alienated the two-fifths of Ukraine’s population who speak Russian as their first language.

So now Putin is bringing pressure on the new Ukrainian government by backing a secessionist movement in Crimea where three-fifths of the people speak Russian and they have spoken for joining Russia in a referendum. There is no doubting Mr Putin’s culpability in all this.

By invading Crimea, Russia has breached the sovereignty of another state and violated the UN charter. US President Barack Obama’s response has been lacklustre. Mr Obama froze the preparations for the next Group of Eight summit, an event that has hitherto symbolised collaboration between the West and Russia. The US may also take further punitive action, including economic sanctions, if Russia moves on to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Western sanctions would be a serious threat to the Kremlin. The Russian economic model is already in dire trouble and has been suffering capital flight for some time. The threat of asset freezes on leading oligarchs connected to Mr Putin would certainly make the Kremlin think twice.

Still, as the US and its allies forge a response, they must bear two things in mind. First, Mr Putin has many retaliatory levers to pull. Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and can use its veto to outmanoeuvre the international community, as it has cynically shown on Syria. It is also the primary source of natural gas to much of Europe. So if the US and its allies are to start drawing red lines that Russia must not cross, they must be certain to act on any breach.

Second, while the US response should be tough, it must also leave plenty of room for diplomacy. Rightly or wrongly, the Putin regime today feels profoundly alienated by the West. The Kremlin believes that the US and its allies are determined to strip Russia of its remaining Soviet-era allies and therefore its status. Such paranoia cannot justify the grotesque actions we are now seeing from the Kremlin. But the west must leave open the opportunity, if possible, for talks between the US, EU, Russia and Ukraine that try to resolve the current crisis.

This, however, would require Mr Putin to abandon his war footing and opt for diplomacy. As of now, there is little sign that he is of such a mindset. The early chill of a second cold war already hangs over Europe.

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