NOW that we know Putin wasn’t bluffing, we need to know whether the West was bluffing in the threats it made to try to stop him.
The headlines are asking if this is the start of World War Three, and President Biden, as well as imposing fresh sanctions on Russia and threatening more, has ordered the deployment of US troops to Nato’s front-line states in central and eastern Europe in case Putin attacks them.
But in doing so, he said: ‘Let me be clear – these are totally defensive moves on our part. We have no intention of fighting Russia.’ The caveat immediately ties both hands behind the West’s back militarily.
That at least answers the world war question although the effects of the conflict will inevitably be drastic in Europe, economically and politically, as volatile energy markets drive up the cost of natural gas and oil, and disrupt markets.
Putin’s attack on an independent neighbour which posed no immediate threat to Russia other than a desire to join Nato at some unstated point in the future is outrageous wherever the underlying blame lies.
His move has been in the making since he annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. He will have calculated exactly how far he can go and exactly how far the West will go to contain this conflict inside Ukraine. Evidently, he believes the short and longer term odds are in his favour.
He seems willing to risk international pariah status if he swallows a sovereign nation, something which has not happened in Europe since 1945.
At the time of writing, the Russian army has attacked cities and military targets all over Ukraine with missiles but has not crossed the border other than to send troops to defend the self-declared ethnic Russian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine’s far east.
What this means is that there is still time for the West to make an offer that prevents Russian forces from engulfing the entire country which voted overwhelming to separate from Russia in 2001.
Unless Biden comes up with a proposal quickly, Ukraine risks being re-integrated with Russia, of which Putin claims it is a natural part. It would then be all but impossible for it to regain its freedom.
The Russian leader has made two demands to the West, firstly that Nato guarantees Ukraine will never be allowed to join the alliance and secondly, that the West withdraw its forward forces from central and east Europe which would mean Nato countries in the region being left to their own defence resources.
In effect he wants a new East-West security agreement which gets Nato off his doorstep and undoes the West’s steady encroachment on Russia which occurred while the country was recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in east and central Europe.
The West insists that neither demand is negotiable because agreeing to them would give Putin a veto power that would destroy Nato’s credibility. Biden has left the door ajar, however. When American and Russian envoys met in Geneva in January, the US said it might be possible to discuss Nato troop and missile deployments. It’s not clear what diplomatic progress, if any, has privately been made since.
Publicly, the West’s energies have been expended on warnings to Putin of more sanctions and of the supply of military assistance to Ukraine while Putin continued the build-up of his invasion force which began last autumn.
Ruling out military intervention on the ground in Ukraine has severely limited the West’s options.
The priority now must be a diplomatic initiative to save what is left of the country’s independence at the risk of being seen to bend to Putin’s will.
In fact, the security of the vulnerable Baltic states – who have Nato guarantees – depends on fast progress towards an agreement.
The expressions of outrage by Western politicians are no more than words uttered on auto-pilot. What matters now is a serious diplomatic response to the events on the ground that is enough to stop Russian forces where they are. Neither the US nor European countries are going to risk WW3 for Ukraine, and Biden and Putin both know it.