Brian Cloughley is a former soldier who writes on military and political affairs, mainly concerning the sub-continent. The fourth edition of his book A History of the Pakistan Army was published last year.
Since the Soviet collapse - as Moscow had feared - [the NATO] alliance has spread eastward, expanding along a line from Estonia in the north to Romania and Bulgaria in the south. The Kremlin claims it had Western assurances that would not happen. Now, Moscow's only buffers to a complete NATO encirclement on its western border are Finland, Belarus and Ukraine. The Kremlin would not have to be paranoid to look at that map with concern. -Stars and Stripes (US Armed Forces newspaper), February 13, 2015.
The Minsk Agreement of February 12, 2015, was arranged by the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine and contained important provisions concerning future treatment of citizens in the Russian-speaking, Russia-cultured eastern districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Ukraine where there has been vicious fighting between separatist forces and government troops supported by militias.
Most Western media did not report that the accord was signed by the leaders of the provinces (oblasts) of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as representatives of Russia and Ukraine, but the former two matter greatly in implementation of its provisions.
To the disappointment of much of the West, and especially the United States, it appears that the great majority of the inhabitants of these regions are to be granted much of what they have been seeking (with robust support by Russia), which includes the right to speak and receive education in their birth-language; restitution of pension payments and other central revenue moneys that were stopped by the Kiev government; constitutional reform of Ukraine including "approval of permanent legislation on the special status of particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk"; and free local elections in the oblasts.
The way to peace will not be easy but the substance of the accord will go far to convincing the people of the eastern oblasts that they will not in future be treated as second-class citizens. They will be permitted an appropriate degree of decision-making in their regions, and if there is goodwill on the part of the Kiev government there is reason to believe that fair governance could apply. A major problem, however, is the attitude of the United States and Britain concerning Russia and Ukraine.
Neither the US nor the UK was privy to discussions between participants in the Minsk talks except through technical intercept by their intelligence agencies and more intimate but necessarily partial description by Kiev's President Petro Poroshenko, whose subordinates reported through US and British conduits.
London and Washington were excluded from negotiations because neither wishes a solution that could be agreeable to Russia and the Russian-cultured regions of east Ukraine.
Both are uncompromisingly intent on humiliating Moscow, and although Britain is verging on irrelevance in world affairs except as a decayed and limited associate of the US in whatever martial venture may be embarked upon by Washington, the US Congress and White House are for once in agreement and are determined to destroy Russia's economy and topple its president and are being provocatively challenging in pursuit of that aim.
There hasn't been such deliberate squaring-up politically and militarily since the height of the last Cold War. President Barack Obama's speeches about Russia and President Vladimir Putin have been bellicose, abusive and personally insolent to the point of immature mindlessness. He does not realize that his contempt and threats will not be forgiven by the Russian people who, it is only too often overlooked, are proud of being Russian and understandably resent being insulted.
Obama claimed last year that the US "is and will remain the one indispensable nation in the world", which was regarded with mild derision by many nations; but now Russians are realizing what he meant by his chest-pounding, because America has fostered the Ukraine mess in attempting to justify its stance of uncompromising aggression against them.
But Ukraine has nothing to do with the United States. It is on the border of Russia, not the US. It is not a member of NATO. It is not a member of the European Union. It has no defense or political treaty of any sort with the US. It is 5,000 miles - 8,000 kilometers - from Washington to Kiev and it is doubtful if more than a handful of members of Congress could find Ukraine on a map.
In March 2014, the province of Crimea declared itself to be separate from Ukraine. There was a referendum on sovereignty by its 2.4 million inhabitants. The Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe was asked to monitor and report on the referendum, but refused to do so. Both referendum and declaration were strongly condemned by the United States.
Some 60% of the inhabitants of Crimea are Russian-speaking, Russian-cultured and Russian-educated, and they voted to rejoin Russia from which they had been separated by the diktat of Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev - a Ukrainian. It would be strange if they did not wish to accede to a country that welcomes their kinship and is economically benevolent concerning their future.
Russia's support for the people of eastern Ukraine - and there is indubitably a great deal of assistance, both political and military, similar to that of the US-NATO alliance for the people of the breakaway Kosovo region of Serbia in 2008 - is based on the fact that the great majority of people there are Russian-speaking, Russian-cultured and discriminated against by the Ukrainian government, just as Kosovans were persecuted by Serbs.
So it is not surprising that the majority of inhabitants of the eastern areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts want to "dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another" and be granted a large degree of autonomy - or even join Russia. The US refuses to admit that they might have even the slightest justification for their case.
There has been a US-led media campaign attempting to persuade the public, in the words of John Herbst, former US ambassador to Ukraine, that President Putin's "provocations against the Baltic states, against Kazakhstan, indicate his goals are greater than Ukraine. If we don't stop Mr Putin in Ukraine we may be dealing with him in Estonia."
This is nonsense, because there is no economic, political or military point in Russia trying to invade the Baltic States or any other country on its borders. There has been no indication of any such move - other than in bizarre statements by such as Mr Herbst and twisted reports in Western news media. It is absurd and intellectually demeaning and deceitful to suggest otherwise, and it is regrettable that someone of the superior intelligence of Mr Herbst could lower himself to say such a thing.
But it makes good propaganda.
In similar vein, President Putin's statement to Ukraine's President Poroshenko that "If I wanted, in two days I could have Russian troops not only in Kiev, but also in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest" was reported by Britain's Daily Telegraph as "President Vladimir Putin privately threatened to invade Poland, Romania and the Baltic states" - which was malicious misrepresentation of what he said.
Putin was making the point that Russia's armed forces could easily have taken successful military action against neighboring countries had they been ordered to do so - but he has no intention of doing anything so rash and stupid. What he and the Russian people want is justice and political choice for the ethnically Russian people in eastern Ukraine, as well as increasing bilaterally lucrative trade arrangements with adjoining countries. It would be insane for Moscow to hazard commercial links with any of its neighbors. Washington, on the other hand, is trying to break them.
Following the Minsk agreement, Canada, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, (together with France and Germany, the Group of Seven) mildly welcomed it - for of course they had no public alternative - but took the opportunity, according to the White House, to "again condemn Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea which is in violation of international law".
It appears that the US-stimulated nations of the G-7 demand that Crimea, with its 60% ethnic Russian population, should be in some fashion taken over by the Kiev government against the will of the majority of the people of that longtime Russian region.
This would satisfy the aim of the US-NATO alliance, which wished and still wishes Ukraine to become a member of that organization, joining those already positioned on Russia's border. For US-NATO, the problem, now, is that the massive seaport at Sevastopol is independent of Kiev and will therefore be denied to US-NATO as a base from which to dominate the Black Sea.
The US-led anti-Russia alliance continues to extend its influence along Russia's borders, and it is obvious that no matter what happens in Ukraine's eastern oblasts there will be continuing confrontation with Russia, led by Washington.
Mikhail Gorbachev - the man whose empathy with president Ronald Reagan so helped to end the first Cold War - observed about the stance of US-NATO that "I cannot be sure that the [new] Cold War will not bring about a ‘hot' one. I'm afraid they might take the risk."
Given the intemperate and increasingly confrontational posture of the US and some of its NATO alliance supporters, the risk seems high. They are hazarding the lives of us all.