Problem is West now too civilised to square up to Moscow muscle
Another day, another meeting. And, yet again, another chance for Western leaders to learn the hard way that when it comes to dealing with Vladimir Putin, there is nothing so ineffective as high-level diplomacy.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Francois Hollande, the French president, embarked yesterday on a two-day trip to Kiev and Moscow, in what has been described as the most determined effort so far to defuse the Ukraine crisis. Apart from all the previous ones, that is.
True, there is a sense of renewed urgency to the talks this week, with Ukraine's pro-Russian separatists launching a major new bid to capture Mariupol, a strategic port town that would help link up annexed Crimea with the rest of their turf.
Nineteen people have died already in the latest clashes, and Mr Hollande has warned that the two sides may be seen heading towards a "total" war that will end up also threatening Europe.
Yet for all the rhetoric, the response from the West is likely to remain somewhat timid. As Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande touched down in Kiev today, Nato was busy laying out what it described as "the biggest reinforcement of its collective defence since the end of the Cold War". This will involve rapid reaction brigades designed to counter any Russian aggression in Nato's new Eastern member states.
It may reassure the likes of Poland, Estonia, Moldova and other new members that their decision to switch sides after the end of the Cold War was the right one. What it will not do, in any measure, is stop the ongoing conflict going exactly as Mr Putin wants it to.
In order to do that, the West would have to start sending troops or weapons into Ukraine, and while reports over this week suggested that more hawkish elements in Washington are now thinking that way, it is hard to see Mr Obama, inset, - let alone Europe - wanting to head towards what would effectively be a direct scrap with Moscow.
After all, the West already has its hands full with Isil in Syria and Iraq. And the strategic threat that the Islamists pose is nothing compared with taking on the army of the world's second superpower.
Instead, the likelihood is that despite listening politely at this week's talks, Mr Putin will continue to prise as much of Ukraine away as he wants. Yes, there will be more sanctions. Yes, there will be financial and economic ruin, especially with tumbling oil prices now draining Russia of its one source of income.
But Mr Putin's calculation has always been that the kind of Russians who vote for him are not as soft as Westerners: they can take a bit of suffering and hardship, especially if it's in the cause of patriotism and regaining the glories of the past empire. More to the point, they can handle a few body bags too, something the West is no longer so keen on.
Nonetheless when seen in the context of the Obama administration giving serious consideration to supplying weapons to Ukraine's pro-Western government, there is the prospect of an alarming escalation in the Ukrainian conflict. Fighting wars through proxies is now all the rage at the Obama White House, which has already authorised the CIA to fund, train and support pro-Western rebels in Syria (without much success, it must be said).
It would appear that US President Barack Obama is preparing to pursue a similar policy in Ukraine, where the pro-Western government of President Petro Poroshenko is struggling to withstand attempts by pro-Russian rebels to establish an independent fiefdom in the east of the country.
At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Poroshenko revealed that there are now an estimated 9,000 Russian troops operating in eastern Ukraine, where they have helped the rebels to consolidate their grip on the Donbass region.
Indeed, with intelligence reports claiming Russian troops and heavy armour are continuing to flood across the Ukrainian border, Alexander Zakharchenko, the pro-Russian rebel leader, has called for a general mobilisation in the hope of creating a 100,000-strong rebel army.
Faced with this pro-Russian onslaught, the Ukrainian government is clearly struggling to resist this Kremlin-sponsored attempt to break up the country. As Mr Poroshenko remarked last year during attempts to negotiate a ceasefire, "we cannot win the war with blankets".
Now it appears that the White House, which has so far sought to rely on soft power measures, such as imposing sanctions on Moscow, to end the conflict, is waking up to the danger of a Russian takeover of this vital state, with all the implications that could have for the security of Western Europe. But Moscow has taken scant notice of sabre rattling in the West.
To put it another way, Mr Putin's meetings with European leaders are rather like a polite dinner party where a drunken yob has turned up, grabbing everyone else's food, guzzling all the booze, and challenging anyone who objects to his behaviour to a fight. His fellow guests may be appalled, and may well say so to his face. But none of them are likely to take up his offer to step outside. That's not the way people do things in civilised Europe any more.
And Mr Putin knows it. (© Daily Telegraph, London)