Now, at least, the gloves are off. At talks on Tuesday Vladimir Putin once again denied having a thing to do with the insurrection in Ukraine, but his words, and those of the Kremlin, describe a situation utterly at odds with the reality on the ground.
The drip-feed of Russian troops and arms into Ukraine has, over the past week, turned into a torrent. Artillery, tanks and military personnel are believed to have crossed the border on at least three occasions, opening up a new front in south-east Ukraine. This is an invasion in all but name.
That Putin has chosen to “escalate” the conflict – which is the term favoured by US and EU politicians unwilling to use the “i” word – sheds some light on his intentions. Had he failed to intervene, it is likely that the Ukrainian forces under President Poroshenko would have quelled the separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, and so been able to re-establish control of the contested regions to the east.
A stable Ukraine is not one that suits Putin’s purposes. And so, under the cover of silence and repeated denials, the Russian military made its move to keep the “irregular war” on a steady boil.
There may be even grander ambitions at stake. Some fear that Putin seeks a land link to the Russian enclave of Crimea – and the rebel troops’ capture of Novoazovsk port, on the road to the Crimean peninsula, raises that possibility. What should the West do?
Given the failure of punitive sanctions to stop Putin, any future set should be conditional on further Russian aggression or border crossings – a deterrent, rather than simply a retroactive penalty. Nato should bolster its presence in Eastern Europe, too, to present the threat of “rapid response”.
Nobody wants to meet Putin directly, and his denials of any action in Ukraine give cautious EU leaders the chance to do nothing. At the very least, however, the West must make it harder for Putin to move forward – into Ukraine – than backwards – to where his forces belong.