In case you had forgotten about it, the Ukraine conflict and the rift between Russia and the West are set to return to the headlines in the coming weeks.
A recent upsurge in fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces with their associated nationalist militia along with the looming deadline for renewal of EU sanctions on Russia guarantee the conflict will be taking column inches from the on-going battles in different parts of the Middle East and the tensions in the South China Sea.
Overall, the conflict has been in stalemate for the past few months.
But February’s Minsk 2 agreement between Kiev, Moscow, Berlin and Paris which called for a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, prisoner releases and constitutional reform in Ukraine is now under increasing strain after rebels tried to push into territory west of their Donetsk stronghold.
The insurgents continue to receive support from Russia – both supplies and manpower. The status of the fighters may be disputed, with Moscow calling them volunteers and Kiev claiming Russian regulars are also involved, but there is no doubt Russia shows no sign of withdrawing its backing.
For its part, Kiev continues to get western backing – with American and British forces training Ukrainian troops and the EU and US maintaining their sanctions on Russia.
The sanctions have increased the pressure on the Russian economy, which has been hard hit by the fall in oil prices, but they have not had any appreciable impact on Moscow’s approach to the conflict.
Russia has returned the favour with bans on food imports from the EU and increased air and naval probing along some NATO states’ borders.
At this week’s G7 summit in Germany, there was agreement to maintain sanctions on Russia until Moscow ends its backing for the rebels, which makes it almost inevitable the EU will renew its sanctions before they expire at the end of next month despite some members showing interest in getting back to business as usual with Russia.
In Washington, there is growing pressure for the US to tighten its sanctions and start supplying weapons to Kiev – something the Europeans have opposed in the past as they believe the only difference it would make would be a worsening of the fighting.
In the event that the US does take this course, expect to hear more accusations from American officials that Moscow has returned to its old expansionist ways and breached the post 1945 consensus that European borders should not be changed by force.
But, as I wrote in March last year, the fact that NATO military action Serbia in 1999 led nine years later to major western powers engineering and recognising the secession of Kosovo had already effectively breached the 1975 Helsinki Accords.
As for Moscow, its loud condemnation of the western support for Kosovo secession looks less principled following its stance on Ukraine and support for Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
So once you strip away the hypocritical political and moralistic rhetoric, you are left with an old-fashioned power play where the West – without really knowing President Putin’s true objective – seeks to deny Russia a strategic victory in Ukraine and – in the absence of the rebels being able to carve out an economically or strategically viable territory – Moscow seems happy to keep its neighbour destabilised to prevent it restoring its economy to a semblance of health or eventually joining the EU and NATO.
All in all it is a nasty deadlock that is set to continue for the foreseeable future with the people of south-eastern Ukraine continuing to pay the price.