Relations between the United States and Russia have reached their lowest point since the end of the Cold War, with Russian President Vladimir Putin accusing Washington of inciting unrest in Ukraine - comments that US Secretary of State John Kerry called a pretext for Russia to "invade" the former Soviet state.
Putin's comments were the first he made since Russian troops reportedly entered the Crimea, an autonomous republic in Ukraine, on Friday. Thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers are currently in a face-off over the strategic peninsula jutting into the Black Sea. Putin denies he sent troops, or that any of the up to 25,000 soldiers already stationed on Moscow's military base in the Crimea are involved.
The escalating situation has drawn swift criticism from the US and its European allies, even prompting the US to threaten economic sanctions against Russia. Though the two countries are holding talks aimed at defusing the tensions, they are nowhere near a resolution.
Russia and the US have been on the opposite side of nearly every major international issue since 2009, when then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to "reset" relations with Russia early on in President Barack Obama's first term. In Syria, Russia has supported President Bashar al-Assad in that country's civil war, while the US and its allies have helped the rebels in their attempt to remove Assad from power. Russia also supports Iran's sovereign right to enrich uranium over Washington's objections.
Putin also granted asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden as US law enforcement sought to capture and arrest him for leaking classified documents to the media.
Finally, the build-up to the Winter Olympics held in Russia's southern city of Sochi last month was overshadowed by US media criticism over recent anti-gay legislation passed in Russia.
|Foreign ministers discuss Ukraine
Now, as the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, differences between Russia and the US are on full display again. This time, the stakes are much higher. World markets tumbled when the crisis broke out, and some fear the escalation could lead to incursions into other former Soviet-bloc states.
At a press conference in Moscow on Tuesday, Putin blasted the US for what he called its supporting role in the original protests by pro-European Ukrainians in Kiev, which led to the president's departure and a new interim government.
"It's an unconstitutional overthrow and an armed seizure of power," Putin said of the protests that ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. "No one has challenged that. Who is saying it's not true?"
"They sit there across the pond as if in a lab running all kinds of experiments on the rats," he added. "Why would they do it? No one can explain it."
Both Obama and Kerry sharply rebuked Putin's actions. "Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further," Kerry said while visiting Kiev on Tuesday. "It is not appropriate to invade a country and at the end of a barrel of a gun to dictate what you are trying to achieve."
Putin accused the US of double standards on military operations. "It's necessary to recall the actions of the United States in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, where they acted either without any sanction from the UN Security Council or distorted the content of these resolutions, as it happened in Libya," he said.
Despite the harsh exchanges, both Russia and the US have little interest in escalating the situation. But Stephen Bittner, a history professor at Sonoma College in California and an expert on Ukraine, said it's nearly impossible to guess what will happen next.
"It's very uncertain at the moment. The immediate question is whether the Russian militant incursion stops in Crimea or if it moves to other Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine, or even if Russia tries to move on Kiev to replace the new government," he said.
According to William E Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute and an expert on Russia, there is a chance things could get worse. Each side has promised sanctions, which would elevate diplomatic tensions, he said.
"The crisis hasn't ended yet. I have every expectation that there will be political pressure from the United States to impose sanctions on Russia," he said. "I have every expectation, especially if we have economic sanctions, that the Russians would respond accordingly."
Crimea has no special meaning to Ukrainians. It was gifted by [former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev from Russia to Ukraine.
Unfortunately for the US and its allies, there seem to be few options besides sanctions for putting heat on Russia. They could kick Russia out of the G-8 and cancel diplomatic meetings, but that is not likely to convince Putin - someone who has referred to Ukraine as Russia's "fraternal nation" - to turn back.
There is also distance between the US and Germany, its most important European ally, over how to confront Putin. Germany has close diplomatic, economic and energy relationships with Moscow, and is careful not to antagonise the Russian leader.
Joerg Wolf, editor of the Berlin-based think-tank Atlantic-community.org, said this leads to differing approaches. "As usual, Germans expect too much from talking to Putin, while Americans tend to exaggerate the benefits of demonstrations of power, sanctions against and isolation of Russia," Wolf told Al Jazeera.
Europe and the US are offering assistance to Ukraine's interim government until elections are held in May. European countries are prepared to give the government $15bn, while Kerry said the US can assist with $1bn in loan guarantees.
Concern of wider action
Bittner said Russia's push into Ukraine is part of a larger strategy towards former Soviet-bloc states. Russia does not want these nations to establish deeper ties with Europe, and went to war with Georgia in 2008 when that country attempted to assert control over South Ossetia, a pro-Russia region that broke away from Georgia in the 1990s. Six years after the 2008 war, Russian troops are still in South Ossetia. With its actions in Ukraine, concerns are growing that it could happen elsewhere.
Russia says its actions are meant to protect its citizens and Russian speakers living in Crimea, as well as its military assets. There is concern that this could lead to a wider conflict with the West if other eastern European countries are affected.
"We have to worry about the Baltic republics, which also have Russian speakers, who are members of NATO," Bittner told Al Jazeera. "By treaty, the alliance would have to respond."
Bittner said the best option might be to allow Russia to keep Crimea. "Crimea has no special meaning to Ukrainians. It was gifted by [former Soviet leader Nikita] Khrushchev from Russia to Ukraine," he said. "There's the room for compromise. Ukrainian nationalists might be convinced to let Crimea go in exchange for Ukraine pursuing European integration."
Pomeranz said he was hopeful Putin's press conference would ease concerns about a conflict with Ukraine. The Russian president said while Moscow reserves the right to enter Ukraine if necessary, a military option would be a "last resort".
Source: Al Jazeera