Away from the distractions of cakes and parties, we are closer to a major war in Europe than at any time since 1945. If this does happen, and we should all pray it does not, then, as in 1914, it will be the result of miscalculation as much as design.
The issue of course is Ukraine. What, though, is going on? What is at stake? And how did the West find itself in such an invidious position, facing a choice between humiliation by a hostile power and a war the alliance is not prepared to fight? I discussed this in an explainer video which you can watch on the IEA YouTube Channel here.
Ukraine is not a vital strategic interest for NATO but is for Russia – for any Russian government, for reasons of geography and history. That means that in this standoff much more is at stake for the Russians than the West, which means Vladimir Putin is prepared to go further and risk more. The West is not going to use military force because it is divided, mainly because several key countries, above all Germany, are dependent on Russian gas.
Putin has immediate goals and longer term ones. His immediate goal is to rule out any prospect of Ukraine joining NATO (because he and most Russians see that as a threat to a vital interest – the equivalent would be Cuba joining the Warsaw Pact). He also wants constitutional reform in Ukraine to turn it into a federal state, with greater autonomy for the largely Russian-speaking provinces in the East, including the two currently controlled by rebels. He would like Ukraine to become a client, like Belarus, but would settle for its being like Cold War Finland, a neutral buffer state.
Putin would prefer to achieve these goals without the use of force but is prepared to use force if needed. He does not want to absorb Ukraine or divide it – he would rather the Russian-speaking provinces are part of a federal Ukraine so that pro-Russian forces in that country are more weighty.
Beyond that, he has wider geostrategic goals and is using Ukraine to advance them. He wants to weaken Western democracy and to divide the US and Europe, taking advantage of the American pivot towards a focus on Asia. He is also looking to threaten and neutralise Poland, and the Scandinavian and Baltic states. These wider goals must be resisted as strongly as possible. The point is to separate these from the Ukraine crisis, where a compromise is possible.
Some more facts: there is no prospect of Ukraine (or Georgia) becoming a NATO member at any point in the near to medium term future; this can be made clear and explicit by a statement by the US and NATO without conceding a veto on membership to Russia; Ukraine is a deeply divided society with a geographical aspect to that division, as its electoral history shows (West and Centre vs East and South). A federal Ukraine therefore makes sense. There is an agreed deal on the table (the Minsk II accord) that would resolve the conflict in the Donbass but it is being held up by the Ukrainian government.
If an agreement is arrived at (by forcing the Ukraine government to reform their constitution), and armed conflict averted, what then? Western Europe needs to develop its own defence capacity and not rely on the Americans. It needs to work towards energy independence and break the dependency on Russia. Longer term, there should be civil society activism (not USAID or CIA covert action) to work with the liberal reformist forces in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia itself with the aim of peacefully overthrowing the authoritarian kleptocracies in power in at least two of them.