It is as if the cold war never ended. With the stroke of a pen formalising Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin hastened the downward spiral of relations between his country and the West. Any warmth that remained has been replaced by a chill that has put on hold partnerships and co-operation. Dangers lie ahead that have to be dealt with through diplomacy and compromise to avoid potentially disastrous conflicts. In as little as three months, Crimea will be absorbed into Russia, a move that will further infuriate US and EU politicians. They have imposed economic sanctions and travel restrictions on a number of Russian and Ukrainian officials. Further penalties have been foreshadowed, including the suspension of Russia from the Group of Eight industrialised nations. Amid concern over Putin's intentions, diplomacy with Poland, Lithuania and other nations on Russia's doorstep has been stepped up.
Putin said Russia's decision after 97 per cent of Crimeans voted for annexation last Sunday was the righting of an historic injustice; Crimea was and always had been Russian territory, misguided decisions of the past having taken it away. For the West, though, his move is an illegal land grab that violates international law. Those rules generally hold that a referendum to secede cannot take place without the approval of a nation's government. Ukraine's interim leaders opposed the move and the referendum was held under questionable circumstances, But whatever the objections, there is little possibility that the course for Russian-majority Crimea will change.
Nor, without determined efforts, will there be a reversal of the troubling direction that the West and Russia are now heading down. They are already tugging for influence across eastern Europe, with the former Soviet Black Sea region from Moldova to Georgia being the focus. The US is likely to push for symbolic troop placements and Nato will try to bring in new members. Existing co-operation on Syria, Iran and Afghanistan is threatened; Russia, isolated, will turn to China and groupings like BRICS and the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
The world does not have the appetite for conflict that it had during the cold war. EU-Russian economic inter-dependence will ensure that annual trade will be little affected. There are nonetheless real and worrying risks from underestimating and over-reacting. To ignore opportunities to compromise and see eye-to-eye amid the fresh competition will make the world less safe.