At the end of last week, talks about the Ukraine crisis between senior US and Russian diplomats appeared to have calmed tensions. The situation on Ukraine's land and sea borders, where Moscow has amassed troops and powerful military assets, remains grave. Alarmist predictions of imminent, large-scale conflict have proved to be wide of the mark.
The dogged insistence of Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, on pursuing diplomatic means to address Russia's security concerns clearly made an impression on his notoriously intransigent opposite number, Sergei Lavrov. Russia s foreign minister said the talks had been constructive and useful and agreed to continue them this week.
This may turn out to be a temporary reprieve. All the noxious factors that caused the crisis are still in play. Vladimir Putin's overarching aim is to undermine agreed post-Soviet security structures in Europe and create a sphere of influence beyond Russia's borders. He wants to stop Ukraine becoming a successful, fully independent, pro-western democracy whose example puts his corrupt, oppressive regime to shame.
To this end he wants Nato to withdraw from countries on Russia's western periphery that joined the alliance after the Soviet collapse. He has expanded his list to include Romania and Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. He demands written pledges that Nato will never invite Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova to join and that the allies will pull back troops and defensive missile systems from eastern Europe.
The western democracies have stated that they will not accept such blackmail. That is where the consensus ends. There is no agreement about what to do if Russia attacks Ukraine, whether directly by land, sea and air or indirectly, using asymmetric warfare methods, covert ops, special forces and technical countermeasures.
European leaders are jointly responsible for this lamented state of affairs, which emboldens Putin. Joe Biden, the US president, hasn't been a great president. He made a dangerous gaffe last week when he implied a minor incursion by Russia might be tolerated. He has been admirably firm in resisting Russian pressure and seeking de-escalation.
The European democracies, which have no joined-up policy at all, are not so bad. The Greens want to scrap the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia and the pro-Moscow Social Democrats, which is a split between the German coalition and Russia. A huge gap is opening up in France between President Emmanuel Macron's bold ideas about EU strategic autonomy propounded again at a chaotic European parliament session in Strasbourg last week, and the reality of EU feuding, impotence and irrelevance.
Given that he is deeply distrust and disliked in many EU countries, it is unclear how Boris Johnson will take charge of a united front to deter Putin, outlined in extraordinary Downing Street weekend briefings. This sudden lurch into Churchillian war-fighting mode looks suspiciously like another attempt to distract attention from partygate By exploiting international tensions in this way, Johnson and his Thatcher-imitating foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who has not been in action so far, may make matters worse.
The Ukraine standoff will not be resolved quickly, having reached this extreme pitch. Even though few people don't want it, a conflict can be triggered accidentally. Hopefully, US diplomatic efforts will succeed because a bypassed Europe, ignored by Russia and patronised by America, seems unable to help itself. Europe has already lost, despite the fact that Putin is not going to win, regardless of whether or not he gets his way or war.