Ukraine's future is teetering between violence and peace after violent clashes first in Kiev and now in Crimea have posed the question of whether the country will be aligned with Russia, split into two, or remain a unified and independent Ukraine.
The country's impeached president, Viktor Yanokovich, has fled to Russia but insisted today he is the legitimate president of Ukraine. Armed militants in Crimea, a region in the southeastern part of Ukraine near Russia, stormed a government building Thursday as a show of loyalty to Moscow, with armed men seizing two airports Friday. Russian military forces have begun conducting training drills in the region, and Ukraine accused Russia today of sending troops into Crimea around a Coast Guard base and two airports.
The population of Crimea, which long was part of Russia, is largely Russian and like much of the eastern part of Ukraine has strong ties to Russia.
Meanwhile, protesters in Kiev who want closer ties with Europe recently won the right to hold national elections a year earlier than scheduled. On May 25, Ukrainian voters will choose a new president. On the same day, Crimean residents will have a referendum on independence.
It is a volatile combination of emotions and forces. Here are five possible outcomes for the unrest in Ukraine, including how it could affect the U.S.:
1. Crimea Secedes and Russia Supports It
In this case, the Crimean people vote to become independent of Ukraine and Russia, and remain as a separate entity that is recognized by Ukrainian and Russian leaders.
"One scenario would be that the unrest we're seeing today escalates to the point where, Crimea could break off and become independent, and be recognized by Kiev as de facto independent state, with support guaranteed by Russia," Andy Kuchins, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said today.
Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said that if Crimea's movement toward independence goes forward or becomes violent, the movement could spread to other parts of Ukraine, irreparably fracturing the country.
"I could imagine this separatist movement emerging," Rumer said. "The potential of further separatism is much stronger in the east (of Ukraine) but it's not something we can not ignore in the west (of Ukraine)."
2. Ukraine Uses Force in Crimea
If military from Kiev tries to tamp down the unrest in Crimea, using a show of force to send a message that Crimea must remain a part of Ukraine, it could backfire. This outcome could prompt Russia to send troops into the region, sparking military clashes, according to Andrew S. Weiss and Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who published a paper on Crimea today on the group's website.
"Putin's hand could be forced (and conflict could come to the region inadvertently) depending on how the new authorities in Kiev respond to recent moves by the local population. One can easily imagine a harsh Russian response if Kiev takes rash steps to reassert its authority in Crimea either by sending in troops or by allowing revolutionary paramilitaries to launch a 'people's march' on Crimea," they write.
3. Russia Uses Force in Crimea
As Russia begins holding military exercises not far from Crimea's border, the global community is watching to see whether Russia will intervene in an internal Ukrainian conflict.
"The worst that could happen is trouble intensifying in Crimea, which seems to be the hottest spot right now," said Rumer. "It could involve Russian military personnel and it could draw Ukrainian security or military units... And then we're looking at a real conflict there."
But experts from both the CSIS and Carnegie Endowment don't see Putin becoming prematurely involved.
"It would be a surprise if Russia moved to annex the region outright. Although Putin has maintained his silence on the situation in Ukraine since this past weekend, events on the ground are challenging Ukraine's territorial integrity and raising the possibility that Russian troops will become directly involved in pulling the country apart," said Weiss.
"The muscle flexing by the Russians is a very crude, brutal signal from the Russians, and unfortunately I think it's going to work to their disadvantage because it can lead to Ukrainian public opinion to be more anti-Russian because of these kinds of shenanigans," Kuchins said, noting that Russian intelligence services are most likely already helping the Crimean militants.
4. The U.S.Could Be Forced to Help Ukraine
Tensions are running high between Russia and the United States, and since Ukraine's border states are allies of the U.S. (including Romania, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia), the U.S. could be forced to help if a conflict erupts in Ukraine.
"We have alliance obligations to countries immediately bordering Ukraine," Rumer said. "This does not mean we would get involved directly... but there could be refugees or humanitarian emergencies in which we would be called to assist our allies."
Weiss points out that Western calls for Russia to remain uninvolved in the Crimean conflict could fall on deaf ears due to Russia's perception that the West stoked protests in Kiev.
5. Crimea Remains a Part of Ukraine and Russia Respects Its Autonomy
In this scenario, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said today it is encouraging Putin to show a statement of support for Ukrainian territory and opposing any moves by Crimea to secede, as well as a recognition by Russia of the new provisional government in Ukraine after the elections in May.
"What I hope will happen is that with the help perhaps of a mediator, to deflect and cool down passions in Crimea and get the government in Kiev and authorities in Crimea to accept a cooling off period, a mediation process, to seek reassurance that they will not seek independence," Rumer said.