Immediate steps need to be taken by both the U.S. and Russia to avoid the dissolution of Ukraine. That’s easier said than done.

Samantha Power (R), the American ambassador to the UN talks to her Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin before a vote on the Ukrainian crisis at the UN Security Council. Photo: Reuters

In Ukraine, a chess game with global implications is being played between Russia and the United States. Yet, the outcome is still uncertain. There is a slight chance that a series of clever diplomatic moves could defuse the crisis in Ukraine. The only question is, which side must make the first move?

It is important to understand the strategic interests of all of the major powers in the post-Soviet space in order to understand how cooperation could be possible. 

The United States and the European Union must understand that Crimea is an ethnic Russian territory that is vital to Russian security because of the Black Sea Fleet.Russia is not likely to stand idly by while a pro-Western Ukrainian government cancels a lease for the port of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol and further ostracizes Russia from the West.

The Russians believe that the West is attacking its traditional sphere of influence, and is deliberately trying to weaken and destroy Russia.

It is important for Russia to understand that it is unlikely for a return to the pre-Maidan status quo in Ukraine, and that for the foreseeable future, Russia has lost its influence over Ukraine.

Now, it gets tricky. Crimea has just voted to secede, and will become a Russian protectorate. Either it will become a de facto state along the lines of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, or it will actively seek to become a part of the Russian Federation.

There will be very little that the U.S. and the EU can do to stop this. However, there is another way to prevent the impending dissolution of Ukraine and resulting civil war. The key is that both powers must be willing to communicate closely with each other and compromise.

They must be willing to turn a zero sum game where there can only be one possible winner into a positive sum game where everyone benefits.

Obviously, it is very difficult to convert the zero sum game into a positive sum game. There has been very little middle ground between the two powers as they compete for influence in the former Soviet Union.

However, Ukraine could be neutralized to serve as a buffer between the two powers in much the same way that Finland became a neutral state during the Cold War. Ukraine would have to agree not to take sides in the great power struggle, but would be able to benefit economically from trading with both Russia and the West. Further, if Ukraine were to give Sevastopol to the Russians in perpetual lease, then Russia would have even less incentive to fear losing Ukraine to the West.

To resolve this crisis, concessions must be made by both powers as well as by those who emerged victorious against former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. New elections will be held in May for a new Ukrainian government. At this time, it is unlikely that a new government will be particularly sympathetic to Russia’s strategic interests. Both the interim government and the newly elected government in May will need to reconcile with Russia to convince them that they will not be antagonistic to Russian strategic interests.

Further, it remains to be seen if Crimea will even remain a part of Ukraine until May, when new elections will be held. Despite secession, Russia may not fully annex Crimea, but rather have Crimea become an even more autonomous region in Ukraine. However, if the May elections overwhelmingly go in favor of Western interests and against those of the ethnic Russians living in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, then we would likely see civil war.

To prevent civil war, the interim Ukrainian government must take steps to establish some type of power-sharing arrangement in which the leaders in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have an important and substantial say in the direction and actions of the new Ukrainian government. Further, they must understand and work together with the Russians to alleviate their security and economic concerns. 

While at one time the Russians tried to rule out the possibility that Ukraine could both work closely with the EU and the Customs Union, the current crisis has created a unique opportunity for Ukraine to do just that.

Ukraine's economy is in such dire straits that it will need aid from both the U.S. as well as Russia. As a result, Ukraine could help both the EU and Russia’s Customs Union through active cooperation with both organizations.

Currently, Russia is still smarting from its defeat and is in no rush to help Ukraine, and the U.S. has been slow to send aid. If neither side is willing to come to Ukraine's aid, then an even greater crisis will develop which could have a profound effect on the world's economy.

Ultimately, it is in the interests of both the U.S. and Russia to cooperate to resolve this Ukrainian crisis.  However, we continue to witness that neither side is eager to cede ground in this power struggle.

If the status quo continues we are likely to witness a disintegration of Ukraine into two states, with an “Iron Curtain” no longer separating East and West Germany, but rather, East and West Ukraine.

It is paramount to ask whether or not the world can really afford another Cold War. Hopefully, cooler minds prevail.   

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.