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Ukraine crisis: It might already be too late to stop the slide into civil war

An armed man stands guard with armoured personnel carriers in the background in Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine. Photo: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

In recent months I've flown into Geneva to watch the world's statesmen grapple with the intractable diplomatic problems of Syria and Iran.

But neither threaten the immediate menace or pose the dangers of Ukraine.

On Thursday a conference of the key players will commence here. The last best chance for peace. The unpalatable truth is this: It might already be too late to stop the slide into civil war.

Much as the interim government in Ukraine might protest that the rebellion to its east is the work of Moscow's agents, there is clearly a ground swell of pro-Russian opinion there armed and prepared, it would seem, to fight.

Nor can Kiev rely upon the loyalty of its security services there.

Whether or not he plans a Crimea-style land grab is not really the issue. President Vladimir Putin wants to recreate Ukraine as a creature of Russian domination.

A Ukrainian soldier clashes with a pro-Russia separatist in the field near Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine. Credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica

He is a leader for whom the break up of the Soviet Union was a historic calamity he intends to put right.

Against this, Europe and the US has seemed weak and divided.

Today's military announcement by Nato shouldn't be mistaken for a promise to deploy troops in Kiev's defence.

Ukrainian soldiers walk in the field near Kramatorsk, where they retook an airfield from pro-Russian separatists yesterday. Credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica

The idea is to reassure the Baltic region, not start World War III.

Instead, the West has relied on robust rhetoric and sanctions in the hope that the scorn poured on Putin and a collapsing economy might limit his ambitions.

It hasn't worked so far. And there is no sign it suddenly will.

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