UK options on Ukraine: warn, threaten and wait
It looks like the National Security Council in Whitehall may have heard about the Russian forces’ ultimatum to Ukraine forces in Crimea while it was sitting.
The message from Russia is that unless these (hugely outnumbered and out-gunned) forces don’t surrender before 3am on Tuesday their bases will be stormed.
But it doesn’t truly know what President Vladimir Putin will do next and will be working on possibilities and probabilities.
The UK has no intention of doing anything “muscular” to stop Russia taking Crimea, one Whitehall source said just before the meeting started.
You get the strong impression that Crimea is now considered in Whitehall as returned fully to the Russian sphere.
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The only question is whether President Putin decides to federate it with Russia, make it independent or establish some sort of autonomy in a restructured Ukraine.
“This is NOT a NATO crisis,” one source said, “no matter how much some Eastern European countries would like it to be.”
Whitehall advisers think that President Putin will be getting advice from rational and analytical parts of his state machinery warning against going into eastern Ukraine, a massive escalation that risks real bloodshed and an on-going policing role.
But they can’t be sure he’ll listen to that part of the Russian state machinery or where events will take him.
At this stage the government can be expected to suspend those bits of cooperation that cost it nothing or little – like discussions on UK visas, pre G8 talks, withdrawing dignitaries from the Sochi Paralympics.
But where there is cooperation the west desperately wants to continue, like talks on Korea and Iran, there will be no sudden cold-shouldering.
David Cameron himself is not someone who is attracted to sports boycotts and one aide said he didn’t expect the prime minister to be remotely attracted to asking British paralympians to boycott the Sochi Winter games.
And despite all the talk about “asset-freezing,” the assets that are expected to come under UK government attention first are those that were siphoned off by the old corrupt regime in Kiev rather than the Moscow leadership and its oligarch friends.
Similarly, the prime minister is not expected to want to turf President Putin out of the G8 right away – not that it’s his call anyway.
Mr Cameron privately thought the last gathering under his chairmanship in Northern Ireland might just have proved a moment to swing Mr Putin closer to the UK/US position on Syria, though of course it wasn’t to be.
Just before the National Security Council meeting started (and before news of the Russian ultimatum), one Foreign Office source said, this was the moment for “laying out the instruments of torture… you do that first in the hope of deterrent effect, you don’t dive into the bag and use them straight away.”
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