In situations of conflict there is an acknowledged advantage given to those with their back to the wall. With survival at stake the ones with nothing to lose by fighting are at an advantage. In previous posts I've suggested that Americans could better understand the Russian position if they imagined the US reaction if America's access to the Panama Canal was threatened. The United States once invaded Panama for that very reason:
The United States Invasion of Panama, code-named Operation Just Cause, was the invasion of Panama by the United States in December 1989. It occurred during the administration of U.S. President George H. W. Bush, and ten years after the Torrijos–Carter Treaties were ratified to transfer control of the Panama Canal from the United States to Panama by 1 January 2000. During the invasion, de facto Panamanian leader, general, and dictator Manuel Noriega was deposed, president-elect Guillermo Endara sworn into office, and the Panamanian Defense Force dissolved. Wikipedia
It could be argued that Russia's interests are under much more threat today in the Ukraine than America's were in Panama in 1989. Are Russians being unjustifiably paranoid here? Here is how a notable neoconservative commentator urges a "full-throated American support for Ukraine’s revolution".
"Without Ukraine, there’s no Russian empire."
Obviously the Russians would be fools if they took US human rights rhetoric all that seriously, as anything but a smokescreen for America's own "imperialist" goals, which are to isolate Russia in a corner of Asia.
So, it seems clear to me that the Russians are the ones in the "to be or not to be" position.
Are the Europeans going to significantly sanction Russia? Doubtful. It is easy to criticize the EU in Washington, but Europeans have a lot more skin in the game than Americans do.
Given that Europe’s economic relationship with Russia is multiple times that of the United States, securing the region’s cooperation will be paramount to any effort by Washington to secure significant sanctions. Yet such ties will not be lightly jeopardized, observers say, even in the defense of a fellow European nation under threat. (...) On Tuesday, the Estonian newspaper Ohtuleht ran an editorial worrying about the economic links between Russia and Western European economies dependent on its gas supplies. “What government would dare to suggest to its voters to spend the next winter in a cold apartment just because of a peninsula nobody can point out on the map?” Washington Post
And if Europe actually decided to go to the mat with Russia, would it work?
Unlike Europe, however, Russia’s capacity for economic hardship is almost limitless, as has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout history. In any contest over pain thresholds, Russia would win hands down. Jeremy Warner - The Telegraph
Would the USA lose anything significant by taking the moral high ground and reducing relations between the two countries? Yes, it would and in a very important way. Here is an angle which strangely nobody seems to have mentioned: one of the major objectives of the Obama administration is withdraw all but a token force from Afghanistan. I understand that getting the masses of American equipment out of Afghanistan would be nearly impossible without Russia's logistical cooperation. Here is what the US State Department has to say about Russo-American cooperation there:
The United States recognizes Russia’s contribution to building a better future for the Afghan people.(...) We take note of the significant contribution to international security that has resulted from the arrangements between the United States and Russia – bilaterally and through NATO – to support ground and air transit into and out of Afghanistan. In accordance with these arrangements, over 2,200 flights, over 379,000 military personnel, and over 45,000 containers of cargo have been transported through Russia in support of operations in Afghanistan.(...) The United States and Russia continue to face a common threat from terrorism, including from al-Qa’ida and other groups operating in and around Afghanistan. We are working together to disrupt terrorists’ operational networks and undermine their access to financial resources. U.S. State Department
If I had to bet, I would analyze it like this. The Russian position is simple, easy for the Russian people to understand. The American position to a great extent is shallow posturing, with very little at stake. The European position is complicated: sending money to Ukraine is like poring sand down a rat hole as the people who have replaced Viktor Yanukovych are said to be every bit as dishonest as he is and any meaningful, economic sanctions on Russia would bring much pain on EU citizens at a time when the entire European project is being questioned by a wave of populists. This brings us to Ukraine. Ukraine's position is purely chaotic, totally fluid and flat broke. There is where I think the denouement will come from... the political/economic implosion of the Ukraine, with Russia shoring up the Russian speaking part. DS