Crimeans' support for Russia's Vladimir Putin should not be underestimated. Photographer: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images
Crimeans' support for Russia's Vladimir Putin should not be underestimated. Photographer: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

A mere month ago, it would have been inconceivable for Russian state television to broadcast the assertion by President Vladimir Putin's propaganda czar Dmitri Kiselyov that "Russia is the only country that can turn the United States into radioactive ashes." Yet now it has done just that, and Tesla Motors Inc.'s Elon Musk has tweeted the link without much incredulity.

On the other hand, a month ago, even Senator John McCain, never a friend to Putin, would not have called Russia "a gas station masquerading as a country."

This is a new cold war, without quotation marks, and this is a world in which the worst-case scenario seems to be the one that will inevitably play out.

Standoff in Ukraine

A month ago, Russian military intervention in Ukraine only seemed possible to conspiracy theorists. Putin, more reasonable analysts said, did not have the guts for a full-scale invasion or the money to sustain it in the face of a certain international blockade. Then Putin invaded Crimea with unmarked troops.

For a while, it seemed he would not hold on to the Ukrainian territory -- just destabilize it and engineer a secession that would place Crimea in the shadowy belt of unrecognized states along Russia's southern border. Now that the Ukrainian peninsula has voted overwhelmingly to join Russia in a (decidedly phony) referendum, and Putin is scheduled to address the Russian parliament on this matter on Tuesday, there is little doubt that full absorption is in the cards. Again, events have followed the worst possible scenario.

There has been nothing in the last month to suggest a turn for the better. Leaders talked on the phone, ministers conducted fruitless talks, the United Nations Security Council condemned Russia but could not pass a resolution because of Russia's veto in the august body. There was not a glimmer of compromise.

Russians are always prepared for the worst: The country has been plunged into misery too many times before. Those who support Putin's Crimea move -- according to polls, more than a two-thirds majority -- are trying on the idea of autarky. "We are not North Korea," pro-Kremlin columnist Maxim Kononenko wrote on Facebook. "We may well be able to live on our own resources. We have airplane factories and wharves and even a dozen car factories built in recent years by German and Japanese producers." He even suggested isolation could spur internal modernization.

It is pointless now to reflect on all sides' lack of flexibility and negotiating prowess. After the upheaval in Kiev, the new Ukrainian government could have sent soothing signals to Putin instead of taking shots at the Russian language and ignoring pro-Russian leanings in the southeast. Putin himself could have made it clear earlier what it was he wanted: broader powers for Ukrainian regions and a higher status for the Russian language (now he has). Western diplomats and leaders could have made a genuine attempt at mediation, which would have meant recognizing the interests of both sides, not just those of Ukraine's sickly interim government.

Now we are trapped in the land of tit-for-tat, a game-theory death spiral. Insults and threats are flying. Forcing Putin to give back Crimea is hardly a realistic option: He has strong support on the peninsula, a fact that voting irregularities should not obscure. Nor will the West accept the proposal published on the Russian Foreign Ministry's site on Monday, because it constitutes meddling in Ukraine's internal affairs. For the Ukrainian government, there is now no way to avoid losing face; as recent events in Kiev showed, a cornered Ukraine can be dangerous.

There might be one trick left: Invite China to mediate the conflict. It was the only nation that abstained when the security council discussed a resolution ordering Russia to stand down. It is the only major player that has not picked a side. It has interests that tie it to all parties in the dispute -- it is anti-secessionist because it fears losing Tibet, but it also has a strategic partnership with Russia. It is not typical for China to play the intermediary in international conflicts; in this case, however, it has suggested it might be willing to lend a hand if invited, even going so far as to suggest a vague resolution plan at the security council.

In a month of unthinkable acts and events, this might be first that could actually offer a modicum of stability.

(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @Bershidsky.)

To contact the writer of this article:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

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David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.