President Vladimir Putin put the annexation of Crimea on a fast track yesterday, ordering the drafting of an accession agreement between Crimea and Russia. On 17 March he laid the groundwork by signing a decree formally recognizing Crimea as a “sovereign and independent state”. A few hours earlier the United States and the EU had imposed financial sanctions against Moscow, while NATO described the referendum in Crimea as "illegal and illegitimate". Crimean authorities say 96.8 percent of voters supported the referendum to join Russia, but many ethnic Ukrainians and Muslim Tatars are thought to have boycotted the vote.
Earlier in the weekend, the Russian government vetoed a US-backed Security Council resolution declaring the referendum invalid, while Russian forces were also accused of seizing a natural gas terminal in Ukraine, just outside Crimea’s regional border. While Moscow is reported to have agreed to refrain until 21 March from taking over Ukrainian bases in Crimea by force (following a ceasefire declaration with Ukraine on 16 March), Russia's military occupation of the Crimea Peninsula has brought East-West tensions to one of their most dangerous points since the end of the Soviet Union. In the past two weeks the conflict has escalated on three levels: political, military and cyber, as outlined in the attached pdf file.
In terms of NATO-Russian relations, it seems that a period of heightened tension is almost inevitable. There will be growing calls to bolster NATO's modest military measures announced so far, including the deployment of additional US missile defences and ground forces to Eastern Europe. But this is only likely to deepen the crisis and harden Putin’s resolve. Needlessly provocative deployments will also do very little to enhance security in Eastern Europe. Instead, as counter-intuitively as it may seem, the West needs to reach out to Moscow and explore new ways to cooperate and normalise relations.