Russia invades Crimea–Is WWIII on the horizon?

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The US and Europe are on edge right now as Russia has taken Crimea, an semi-autonomous region of Ukraine whose population is 60% ethnic Russian.  Early yesterday Russia’s legislature, the Duma approved military force in Ukraine.  Since Crimea is recognized as part of Ukraine, for Russia to take it by force is a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.  The Ukrainian military is on full alert, however Ukraine’s military is much smaller than Russia’s military and Ukrainian economy is in shambles.

This situation comes on the heels of an uprising in the Ukraine that forced its president into exile and left a very divided country.  The western part of the country leans towards the West, the European Union and wants more integration in the EU.  However eastern Ukraine is more aligned to Russia.

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting in New York where UN Ambassadors from the US, UK, France and the Ukraine condemned Russia’s action, while Russia’s UN Ambassador defended it.  Obviously nothing substantial came of it, not even a resolution since Russia has veto power.  President Obama had a 90 minute phone conversation with President Putin and again nothing substantial came of it other than Obama asking Putin to pull back his forces, and notifying Putin that the US would suspend its participation in the G8 summit scheduled for June in Sochi.  David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom later withdrew his country’s participation from the G8 summit, as well as leaders from France, Germany and Canada.  The question for the US and Europe is what do they do now?

A war is the last thing the international community wants or needs.  However there was a treaty in 1994 between Ukraine, the US and UK.  In exchange for Ukraine relinquishing it’s chemical weapons, the US and UK guaranteed Ukraine’s borders.   Crimea itself is autonomous, and until 1954 was part of Russia.  But if Putin moves his forces beyond Crimea into mainland Ukraine, would the US and UK be dragged into war with Russia?

As a historian, my immediate reaction was this is eerily similar to Hitler annexing the German-speaking Sudetenland, which was part of then-Czechoslovakia.  Putin’s reasoning to sending troops to Crimea is to protect the ethnic Russians who live on the island.  In 1938, Britain and France were traumatized by WWI and fearful of starting another war so they did little to stop Hitler.  Similarly, the US is war weary after Iraq and Afghanistan.  Also as the UK greatly downsized it’s military to a mere police force for its empire after WWI, just last week US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the US military would be downsizing to pre-WWII levels.

If the West wishes to prevent this situation from de-escalating, diplomacy must prevail.  Economic and diplomatic sanctions are a good start.  Russia should be isolated as much as possible starting with the G8 summit in Sochi.  The problem is that Ukraine is a very divided country, among its leaders and its people.