While the potential for escalation and miscalculation persists, an armed conflict between Russia and the United States or NATO in the Black Sea is highly unlikely. The stakes are simultaneously too high – a war would disrupt energy flows to Europe, upset financial markets, undermine diplomatic progress regarding Iran and Syria, stretch involved militaries to beyond their operational limits and potentially pit at least two nuclear armed states against one another in an armed conflict – and too low. For all the Western support, Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the European Union and NATO is not interested in what amounts to a voluntary military contingency over Crimea.
The prospect for escalation and armed conflict between Ukrainian and Russian forces is more plausible and has increased with the local Crimean parliament's 6 March announcement to schedule a proposed referendum for the 16 March to decide whether the autonomous region will integrate into the Russian Federation. Elections and referendums are milestone events that invite manipulation, determination, provocation, competition, and unrest. If the scheduled referendum goes forward, it could easily serve as a trigger to a series of localised, but ultimately cascading, conflicts that would be exploited by Putin or other actors to justify the annexation of Crimea and potentially, with Russian assistance, spread to eastern Ukraine.
IHS assesses that the referendum will likely lead to Crimea voting for annexation to Russia, a result that will greatly undermine stability in Crimea and enhance the possibility of either intentional Russian military action to consolidate this result or escalation due to the always unpredictable human factor. The situation in Crimea has benefitted from discipline and restraint, but it also remains exceptionally taught, marked by a surfeit of weapons and emotion, a combination that can undermine military discipline, individual decision making and rationality.
Even if the Ukrainian citizens in Crimea do not vote to join Russia, or if the referendum is delayed or not held, the introduction of this type of milestone and trigger event will destabilise the situation on the ground as 16 March draws closer. It has placed a decision point and an expectation of imminent action in a situation in which few, if any, of Ukraine's and the West's levers will benefit from a heightened sense of urgency in Crimea.