MARK NICOL: The UK and US are impotent – and they won’t take on the Kremlin

So how close are we to war? Arguably, only Vladimir Putin knows.

The Kremlin’s agent provocateur is indulging in his characteristic high-stakes games and contempt for international laws. While his frightening show of force may merely be intended to boost his popularity – his approval rating hit a record high after his invasion of Ukraine in 2014 – make no mistake, we are just one step from serious conflict.

Putin is playing ‘a suspense game’, according to Russia expert Dr Maryna Vorotnyuk, of the Royal United Services Institute, and the longer he keeps everyone anxiously waiting, the more political capital he gains.

A full-scale invasion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea seems on hold for now, because the build-up of troops and military hardware is achieving its desired effect of scaring the West. But just one mistake by Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky could dramatically trigger an advance of thousands of Russian troops back into the territory they seized illegally seven years ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the Russian Geographical Society via video link in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 14

The response by the UK and US would be heavy on rhetoric rather than military action, thereby providing Putin with another propaganda victory in time for the Russian parliamentary elections later this year. As this game plays out, London and Washington appear impotent, all words and no intervention – because there is simply no desirable course of action for Nato’s leading partners to embark upon to influence Russia’s affairs.

This lack of options is as obvious to Putin as it is to anyone else. The reality is only he is in a position to call the shots.

Comedian-turned-politician Zelensky is equally powerless when it comes to influencing Putin or Nato, the defence alliance he is so desperate to join.

President Joe Biden (right) as at Arlington National Cemetery,  Virginia, April 14; Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions at the House of Commons, London, April 14 (left)

Because while US President Joe Biden and UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab have been at pains to express their unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and profuse in their condemnation of Russia’s escalation of tensions, the US and UK governments are not going to risk a direct confrontation with Moscow.

Similarly, in spite of Ukraine’s valuable contributions to Nato security operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not going to be granted membership of the alliance any time soon, certainly not before the issues in the Donbass breakaway regions and the Crimea are solved.

The consensus of opinion among security experts is that there is definitely more to Putin’s actions than simply ‘sabre-rattling’ – he did not need to move military manpower and hardware from as far away as the Estonian border and Siberia to achieve that.

Tanks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces are seen during drills at an unknown location near the border of Russian-annexed Crimea, Ukraine, April 14

Three Russian missile ships, a frigate and a mine-sweeping vessel will take part in snap live-fire drills in the Black Sea Wednesday amid soaring tensions around the border with Ukraine

This is already the bloodiest war in Europe since the Balkan conflict of the 1990s, with at least 14,000 people killed since the Russian invasion in 2014 and more than 1.5 million people forced to leave their homes.

Russia’s proposed solution is for Ukraine to federalise and for the breakaway regions to be granted permanent autonomy. But this is unacceptable to the Ukrainian government and to the UK and US.

For its part, Moscow is equally averse to Zelensky’s plan for further integration with the EU and Nato. So with tragic inevitability, it appears the seven-year conflict, during which time more than 20 officially sanctioned ceasefires have failed, will linger on.

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