* NATO ambassadors hold emergency session to discuss Crimea
* Rasmussen warns Russia it threatens Europe's security
* Diplomats see limited scope for NATO response
By Luke Baker and Justyna Pawlak
BRUSSELS, March 2 NATO's secretary-general
warned Moscow on Sunday it was threatening peace in Europe with
its seizure of Crimea and should "de-escalate tensions", but
diplomats said the alliance was unlikely to agree on major steps
to rein Russia in.
Speaking moments before chairing an emergency meeting of
NATO ambassadors, Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that Russia's
actions in Ukraine could destabilize the continent.
"What Russia is doing now in Ukraine violates the principles
of the United Nations charter," Rasmussen told reporters before
a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, made up of the
permanent representatives to the 28-nation military alliance.
"It threatens peace and security in Europe. Russia must stop
its military activities and its threats."
Despite the strong words, diplomats said they did not expect
NATO to agree on significant measures to pressure Russia, with
the West struggling to come up with a forthright response that
does not risk pushing the region closer to military conflict.
The stand-off has created the greatest moment tension
between Russia and the West since the collapse of the Soviet
Union in 1991, an event Russian President Vladimir Putin has
described as the geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.
"Don't expect big decisions," said one NATO ambassador.
Another diplomat to the military alliance added: "I think we
must be careful not to give the Russians anything that could
rile up pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea."
Despite a 90-minute phone call between President Barack
Obama and Putin on Saturday, and other calls to the Kremlin by
European leaders, Russia shows no sign of backing away from its
de facto occupation of Crimea and presence in east Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Russia it could
face targeted sanctions including visa bans, asset freezes and
trade isolation if it did not back down, and said major world
powers were determined to isolate Moscow.
Moscow has said it is merely protecting the lives of
Russian-speaking nationals, and appears to be calculating that
the West will not risk a wider conflagration by taking anything
approaching military action against it.
While Ukraine is associated to NATO, it is not a member and
therefore cannot invoke the alliance's most powerful diplomatic
tool, known as Article 5, which states that an attack against
one member is an attack against all.
Given those limitations, diplomats and military experts said
the most that could be expected might be that the United States
would move some warships into the Black Sea, an action it could
undertake unilaterally, rather than under NATO's auspices.
"NATO can only say what 28 nations allow it to say," said
Karl-Heinz Kamp, academic director of the Federal Academy of
Security Policy in Berlin.
"There are member states which are more pro-Russia than
Several NATO and European Union member states depend on
Russia for energy, giving them geopolitical reasons for wanting
to maintain decent relations with Moscow, even if they deplore
its actions in Ukraine.
After more than a decade of conflict in Afghanistan and
Iraq, and having failed to prevent Russia's partial occupation
of Georgia in 2008, there is a deep-seated reluctance among
Western powers to provoke a military escalation.
"Wars aren't very popular at this moment," said Tim Ripley,
a military expert with Jane's Defence Weekly magazine.
And yet if the West fails to find a way to bring pressure to
bear on Russia, it could do itself lasting damage.
"If the Russians take over Crimea, it would humiliate the
West and show it to be a paper tiger, unwilling to protect a
European country against outside aggression," said Ripley.
"It would give the Russians huge territorial waters to
control the Black Sea ... it would be a massive humiliation."
"CHICKEN OR EGG"
Short of a military response, the most likely steps NATO
could take include cutting cooperation with Russia, with which
it has frequent contact at ministerial level and has conducted
joint military exercises.
Political or economic sanctions against Moscow could also be
an option, but that would be the primary responsibility of the
United Nations, where Russia has a veto on the Security Council,
or else the EU or United States acting in consort.
"The most effective support NATO members could give Ukraine
would be financial sanctions against Russia, refusing to buy its
oil and gas," said Ripley, laying out a high-risk strategy.
"It's a chicken or egg question. Do they need money more
than we need their oil and gas?"
Alternatively, the West could move to isolate Russia, which
will host the G8 summit in Sochi in June. Already four G8
members have suspended preparations for the gathering.
"If the G8 expels the Russians and turns itself into a G7,
that would hurt Putin's self-esteem," said Nick Witney of the
European Council on Foreign Relations.