Ukraine’s Western-backed government is pushing to regain the territory it lost to rebels in the south east. Meanwhile, the pro Russian forces are seeking to expand the area under their control. The intelligence website Stratfor speculates that this reflects Russia’s aim of carving out an enclave that will be viable and defensible in the long term.
Both sides rely heavily on ultra-nationalist militias and indiscriminately use heavy weapons. The estimated death toll of 5,000 is a snapshot of the civilian population’s suffering in southeastern Ukraine.
Secondly, there is the much larger geopolitical struggle involving the US, the European Union (EU), and Russia. This arguably began more than a decade ago in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq war.
France, Germany, and Russia led European opposition to George W Bush and Tony Blair’s invasion plans. The US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed them as “old Europe”.
He said, “If you look at the entire Nato Europe today, the centre of gravity is shifting east.” In other words, the US could split the EU, playing off the new central and eastern European members against the historic core.
As I pointed out in my book Bonfire of Illusions, Russian president Vladimir Putin has shown that “more than one could play that game”. We saw this first in autumn 2008 when France, Germany, and Italy blocked the imposition of sanctions on Russia after it had militarily crushed the pro Western Georgian government.
Putin has been playing the same game in Ukraine but for much higher stakes. As in the case of Georgia, he is trying to keep Nato away from Russia’s borders.
But Putin is also trying prevent Ukraine, with all its industrial capacity and natural resources, slipping decisively into the Western sphere of influence.
Up to last week, Putin hadn’t been doing so well.
The German chancellor Angela Merkel took personal charge of the European response to the Ukraine crisis and sought to talk Putin into a deal.
But the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines flight over the war zone in July tipped the balance in favour of EU support for increasing tough sanctions on Russia.
However, the situation changed again last week. Merkel and French president Francois Hollande flew to Ukraine’s capital Kiev and Moscow in an unsuccessful effort to a broker a deal.
This was almost certainly prompted by the growing pressure in Washington for the US to supply heavy weapons to the Ukrainian government.
US president Barack Obama is reluctant to adopt this policy. The latest defence budget shows that his priority remains to contain growing Chinese power in Asia.
But both the Republicans who control congress and his own vice president, Joe Biden, want to send arms to Ukraine.
Both Biden and Merkel spoke at the Munich security conference last weekend. Biden had already poured scorn on efforts to talk to Putin.
Merkel warned, “This crisis cannot be solved by military means.” She and Hollande fear a proxy war in Ukraine between the US and Russia could easily escalate out of control.
There is also a new dimension to this crisis. One of the first things the new Syriza government in Greece did was to denounce the EU sanctions against Russia.
Other political leaders challenging the EU mainstream have expressed sympathy for Putin, including Ukip leader Nigel Farage, French Nazi Marine Le Pen, and ex Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond.
The Financial Times newspaper’s Gideon Rachman complained last week, “The rise of the political extremes within Europe threatens EU unity on Russia—making it more likely that the Kremlin will be emboldened and that the crisis will escalate.” Rachman also opposes the EU making any concessions to Greece over its debt.
The interaction of these crises underlines that the EU is locked into policies driving it towards disaster. Merkel has blinked over Ukraine. Let’s hope she does over Greece as well.