I am the first person to recognise that Russia is not remotely interested in protecting sovereign territorial rights in the Ukraine and I share the conviction that Putin is clearly working on a straightforward land grab. I accept the argument that he is trying to slowly restore to mother Russia as much of the territory of the former Soviet Union as he possibly can.
That doesn't mean that it is a great idea to react by automatically backing the Ukrainian government with military exercises. Firstly let's consider a straightforward military calculation. How much armed force can Russia ultimately deploy in the East of Ukraine? How much can the West deploy? How far does Russia have to send its troops and how difficult would it be for the West to send theirs? You only have to ask these simple obvious questions to illustrate the absurdity in practical military terms of sabre rattling. We could never assemble enough fire power, and so we cannot possibly win a conventional military war in the East of the Ukraine.
If you cannot possibly win a war then it is not a very good idea to pretend to the people of the Ukraine that you intend to stand behind them with military force. It is, for example, not much use for the UK to send 200 soldiers there to train troops if the UK has absolutely no ability to send enough weapons and troops to back up those trained Ukrainian forces if they enter a battle against a much more powerful enemy and start losing. We have, however, chosen to quietly send those troops.
Nor is it a great idea to give the impression to the Ukrainian government that we will back their defence of sovereign and inviolate sacred Ukrainian territory and that we are behind them in their treatment of all the citizens who happen to live within it. The Ukraine has a proud history and a longstanding culture. But it isn't a well defined piece of territory with a single coherent set of citizens who all subscribe to the same culture. Significant parts of the territory in the West was carved out of Poland at the end of the second world war. The East was transferred from Russia to the Ukraine by Stalin as a post Second World War gift to Khrushchev and contains a complex jumble of people the majority of whom speak Russian.
The Ukrainian government thought it was a good idea to deal with the diversity within its borders by forcing the children of the East to speak Ukrainian in school and trying to enforce a single cultural identity. This proved to be such an utterly clumsy piece of nationalism that it left high numbers of Russian speaking people in the East convinced that even Putin's robber baron state must be better than living with such narrow minded zealots.
When faced with a section of the population that wants to leave the country and join another there are three possible approaches. One is to opt for the West's normal policy proposal and allow those people to opt for self determination. Cynically the West is ruling that out and equally cynically Russia is proposing it. The second option is to insist that people remain in a country they don't wish to belong to and to try and force them to stay by military force. The right to put down your opposition by military force and the insistence that others should leave you alone to get on with is normally a something Putin is very keen on. It is his own narrow nationalism rather than any desire to defend the oppressed that makes him oppose a military crackdown on dissidents in this particular location. Equally cynically the West seems to be supporting the oppression. Both sides have dumped their normal 'moral' stance and have happily adopted the arguments of their enemy.
Neither side seems terribly interested in the third option which is the only real way out of the problem. Instead of investing in military hardware and making ordinary people's lives miserable by conducting low level warfare across half wrecked high rise housing estates you make a concerted attempt to improve things in the Ukraine and make it a more attractive place to live.
If the West really wants to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the people in the Ukraine then it should start to send serious economic assistance rather than military advisors. The Ukrainian economy is a mess. It depends for its energy on imports from Russia and so can be brought to its knees anytime Putin chooses to by the simple mechanism of turning off the oil. So the first and most practical help that the West could provide would be to start generating serious amounts of solar energy and wind energy across the Ukraine and to help improve the infrastructure of energy storage and supply. We could also help with modern agricultural techniques and equipment. The Ukraine used to be the leading agricultural exporter across the whole of Europe. It has the land, the soil and the educational standards to achieve this again and the industrial knowledge to enable it to process the agricultural produce and add value. But it badly needs support as many of the country areas have experience 100 years of asset stripping instead of investment. Help with modern industrial technology and with developing service industries such as tourism are also badly needed.
Effectively what the Ukraine needs is a massive international economic development programme to enable it to become massively richer and more diverse in what it produces and the West, including the EU, has the ability and the wealth to provide this. Instead of doing it we are indulging in military fantasies which actually help our enemies more than they hinder them.
Every day that we continue to invest in military hardware is a day when we strengthen Putin's hand. We provide him with the perfect opportunity to posture as the defender of the Russian nation and he loves doing exactly that. Every day that we invest in building up their economy and getting them free of Russian oil supplies is a day that we weaken Putin and attract more people in the East of the Ukraine to want to stay in the country.
We have a simple choice. Risk provoking a war that could escalate horribly or help a country to build up its economy and make its people a lot happier and more secure. To me the best option seems obvious. And it isn't setting up a rapid reaction force.