Is the West about to sell out Kiev to please Mr Putin?
Last July, I summarised the beliefs of Nato about Russia's willingness to fight on. "No one in their right minds in Moscow will want to use force to mess with borders in Europe: that means ripping up the whole post-Cold War moral and political settlement that has benefited everyone enormously. Once that starts to unravel, how to stop a slump straight back to 1930s-style madness?"
Well, here we are. Moscow is using force to carve away from Kiev's control steady slices of its Eastern territory. What is Europe going to do about it?
The immediate aim is for Moscow to control a strip of Ukrainian territory linking Russia directly to the Crimea peninsula. Doesn't the idea of linking Crimea to Russia through a 'land bridge' take us back to the Danzig Corridor dispute in the 1930s and the pretext Hitler and Stalin used for invading Poland? Gulp.
Is Russia's aggression in Ukraine part of a deep Putin plan to rebuild the Tsarist empire? Or did it emerge "inevitably" (as communist-era Russian diplomats lugubriously might say) from an improvised decision by Moscow to annex Crimea to punish the broad pro-European tendency in Ukraine for its temerity in bundling from office former President Yanukovych?
History will take its view on such questions, and as Michael Goldfarb has wisely reminded us, the history of settling territorial claims in Europe shows that no deal lasts for ever. Nonetheless, Germany's Angela Merkel and France's Francois Hollande want to try to find a way to get these problems under shared management and end the carnage wrecking eastern Ukraine and risking wider conflict.
What is this negotiation about? Negotiation is often presented as a choice between carrot and stick: what can one side do to affect the positive or negative incentives for the other side? But carrots are a credible incentive only if they are close and edible - and, crucially, if the donkey thinks you'll hand them over. Likewise a stick is credible only if it's big and strong and close - and, crucially, if the donkey thinks you'll use it.
The immediate issue in Moscow today is the obvious one: how to establish a peaceful, sustained process that stops the fighting as a precondition for looking in a systematic way at the wider knot of problems?
But as Merkel and Hollande sit across from Putin, all three of them will know that the real issues are psychological.
How much pain are Western sanctions inflicting on Russia? Is Russia's collective willingness to withstand such pain greater than the Western willingness to sustain it? And what about Ukraine's willingness to sustain pain? What does Putin really want, and where might he be persuaded to stop along the way for wider reasons? Does he himself know? Is any deal they might strike simply a trick by Moscow to consolidate existing territorial gains before starting to gnaw away for more? At the level of diplomacy, all three leaders will pretend to agree that European borders can not be changed by force, even though that is exactly what is happening. So a way has to be found to fudge these issues, playing on the familiar legal distinction between de jure (as a matter of law) and de facto (as a matter of fact).
Thus Kiev offers significant devolution to certain territories in the East and does not formally renounce its position that Crimea remains its territory: as far as Ukraine and the rest of the world and international law are concerned, those territories stay within Ukraine's legal borders. In practice (de facto), Russia will exert direct or indirect control over these areas for most purposes that matter, compelling Kiev into debilitating rows over almost everything down to the symbols on local official headed notepaper. Europe gets a new frozen conflict, where the thermostat is controlled in Moscow.
Hollande and Merkel (and Putin and the leadership in Kiev) know that this is the only available answer if the fighting is to stop. So they'll focus on the way it might be delivered and verified. (© Daily Telegraph London)
Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw.