Autumn is approaching - for nature and for Europe. Or at least for the Europe we have known since 1991. At best, we are heading back to a continent with two opposed military parties. At worst...well, let's not go there, quite yet.
What does Russia want? Just a "common-sense peace" if the government is to be believed. For Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, war is outmoded - and sanctions are, too. (Putin o sanktsiiakh) Yet the armed forces of Ukraine shoot at civilians. So of course civilians must be defended by armed fighters in eastern Ukraine (V Evrope predpochitaiut ne samechat' rasstrel ukrainskimi voennymi zhilykh kvartalov) - and perhaps by Russia, too? The Ukrainian government only wants war and try to undermine all attempts at peace, says Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (Vashington, Briussel i NATO podstegivaiut partiiu voiny v Kieve) So the Ukrainian military must move out of - or be removed from - eastern Ukraine and agree to an immediate ceasefire. (V Minske budet obsuzhdat'sia prekrashchenie ognia) When that has been achieved Russia and Ukraine can again each agreements on natural gas deliveries, to the benefit of all of Europe. (Rossiia i Ukraina gotovy provesti trekhstoronniuiu vstrechu po gazu 6 sentiabria)
There is a kernel of truth to these Russian claims. In eastern Ukraine fighting has taken place in residential areas. And as the state with de jure sovereignty over this area, Ukraine has a responsibility to ensure a minimum of civilian casualties, also to the detriment of military aims. Whether Ukraine has shown such duty of care is not clear now, but the rest of the world must insist - now and later - on complete transparency of the actions committed by the military forces of Ukraine. If necessary, the West must insist on sanctions against any Ukrainian forces found to have committed crimes against the civilian population, through intent or neglect.
Similarly, as much as Ukraine and the West today want to distance themselves from Russia, the issue of energy deliveries remains. The European Union, and perhaps even Ukraine, could scrape through the coming winter without Russian oil and natural gas, yet this will cause economic pain for Europe in a way, which the continent only now seems to understand. In the longer run energy from the USA and elsewhere might help Europe to escape from Russian energy, but that will only enforce the division now strengthening just east of Riga, of Warsaw and of Kyiv.
And the division is there to stay. Russia keeps on seeing NATO as a threat, especially if the military infrastructure of the organisation is seen to threaten Russian territory. That is a sinister message, considering that Russia today sees Crimea as its territory. (Novaia voennaia doktrina). There is little sign so far that Putin will back away from the peninsula and the new, Russian map of Europe (Canada and Russia in Twitter fight over map) - or indeed back away from its "defence of peace and civilians" in eastern Ukraine. (Putin's talk of statehood for East Ukraine puts pressure on Kiev) And now it looks as if Ukraine and the West have finally taken up the challenge.
Have Russian troops invaded Ukraine? In effect, this seems likely. However, what really matters is that everyone now acts as if this has happened. Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine, now speaks of a direct Russian attack (Priama agresiia Rosiii proty Ukraiiny dokorinno zminiue sytuatsiiu u zoni boiiv) - and his government has called for the entry of Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine in NATO - if that is not a red line for Putin's Russia, then nothing is. Crucially, not only is the idea of Ukrainian membership not rejected by NATO's General Secretary, Anders Rasmussen, but he has presented plans for a NATO "rapid response force" that is openly directed against Russia. (NATO to create high-readiness force to counter Russian threat).
Now, in itself such a force makes good sense for NATO. Rapid reaction forces are increasingly needed by the international actors of the world to handle modern warfare. Russian military reform has itself been moving in this direction. Similarly, Rasmussen and others in Europe can say with justification in the preservation of peace that the involvement of Russia in Ukraine is unacceptable, and that Russia must be prevented from further aggression, in Ukraine and elsewhere.
The problem is, though, that there currently is no sign that anybody is willing to back down. If Putin is (allegedly) heard saying that he "could take Kyiv in two weeks," (Putin comment on "taking Kiev in two weeks" twisted, aide says), Ukrainian Minister of Defence Valerii Heletei writes that Ukraine must be prepared for a war in which tens of thousands may die. (MES Rosiii nesadovolene zaiavamy Heleteia). Dalia Grybauskaite, President of Lithuania, says that Russia is at war with Europe. (Rusija "praktishkai pradejo kara su Europa"). From the US, Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says that the US must arm Ukraine now before another Syria is created. (U.S. lawmakers call for arming Ukraine government). For Heavens sake, even the EU - war-averse little EU - is about to have a foreign policy chief, who sees the "strategic partnership" between the Union and Russia as dead, even if she at least wants to stick to diplomacy. (Putin non rispetta i patti) But not everyone seems to agree with Federica Mogherini, as would largely have been the case just a month ago.
Now, probably the situation is less dire than it seems. Putin's people have been quick to downplay any threat against Ukrainian statehood. Poroshenko and Heletya have not argued for war against Russia, but for Russia to get out of Ukraine. NATO gives no indication that military action against Russia is forthcoming. And the exhortations of Rogers et al seem to have little impact on President Barack Obama, who has plenty to do in Syria. Yet especially the calamity of the Middle East - and other incoming political crises such as Britain's fight to retain Scotland - still prevents Ukraine from getting the undivided attention of the West. The Baltics, and other NATO states, would not suffer from such neglect and Putin's Russia, consequently, will almost certainly not cross that line. Yet if Russia has now invaded Ukraine then two of the largest states in Europe are at war. And the West, still, seems to have no plan for ending this - apart from sanctions that came too late and, at the very least, will need more time to work. Worse, the West seems to have no plan for what to do with Ukraine - or with Russia - in the longer run.
Maybe a solution starts with Europe itself. What sort of Europe do we want? Can it include armed aggression - at a price - or should international law and sovereignty always outweigh economic considerations? If aggression can be acceptable, then Russia is effectively welcome to take over eastern Ukraine (and to keep invaded Crimea). To take whatever else Putin can get his hands on. And Russia and Ukraine alike are welcome to ignore civilian casualties. In return - once a stalemate has been reached - "negotiations for peace" can commence.
Yet if aggression is never acceptable then the West must make that clear now. If it is claimed by the West that Russia directly violates peace in Europe then no collaboration with the Russian state can be possible until Russian forces are completely and unequivocally out of eastern Ukraine, and out of Crimea. No ifs and no buts! With this solution - probably now the least bad of many truly terrible options - the West and Russia are in a state of bloodless war. The consequences of which will be felt for years and maybe decades to come.