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mark mackinnon

Everywhere I've travelled in recent weeks – London, Ukraine, Crimea, Moscow – the question is the same: Will there be a war in Ukraine?

The answer probably depends on your definition of "war." If I'm asked whether I expect a full-blown Russian invasion of Ukraine, the answer I give is no. Not yet, anyway.

But we're already deeply into a classic "phony war," the kind that Europe has seen before.

NATO officials say the Russian army has massed tens of thousands of troops at the Ukrainian border, and is behaving in such a way (communicating through hand-to-hand couriers, deploying logistical units and erecting field hospitals) that looks more like preparations for an invasion than a standard military exercise. The Ukrainian government is hastily raising a new National Guard in hopes of demonstrating that (unlike in Crimea) it intends to put up at least some kind of fight.

But analysts in Moscow – including those with Kremlin connections – say President Vladimir Putin has not yet decided to invade. So far, he has only asked his government and military to give him all the tools he needs to mess with Russia's disobedient neighbour.

Mr. Putin may be apoplectic over the revolution in Kiev, but few believe he has lost his mind. He's not interested in sending his army to capture and hold (the latter task is the real challenge) eastern and southern Ukraine. Not if he can get what he wants by other means. The military force at the border is meant, for now, only to intimidate.

But Russia is already waging war by other means. The Kremlin's media outlets – widely watched in Ukraine until a recent ban – have whipped up fear among Russian-speakers that the new government in Kiev is controlled by "fascists" bent on forcing their children to speak Ukrainian. Russian citizens are believed to have joined demonstrations in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Lugansk and Odessa, decrying the "coup" in Kiev and calling for Crimea-style referenda in those Russian-speaking cities.

The goals of the military buildup, the propaganda and the provocateurs are the same: making it clear that Ukraine ungovernable without Russia's help and making it plain to Kiev and the West just how far Mr. Putin is willing to go to keep the former Soviet republic from joining the European Union and NATO. Each step Ukraine takes towards the West will be matched by violence in cities like Donetsk, bringing separatist referenda and Russian military "protection" closer.

The delicate dance – clashing protesters in Ukraine, rumoured Russian troop movements at the border, limited economic sanctions from the West – recalls the 1850s, as Russia's Tsar Nicholas I tried to wring concessions out of crumbling Ottoman Empire before the English and French navies arrived in, yes, Crimea. Others will draw comparisons to the 1930s in Europe.

What Russia wants in exchange for peace now is what it believes it had before overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in February: veto power over the decisions made by the Ukrainian government. It will not tolerate a Ukraine that sits on its border as a member of NATO and the EU.

Lviv, in the far west of Ukraine, can fly the flag of Brussels if it wants. But the Kremlin considers almost everything east of there to be part of its historic "sphere of influence." And, after watching that sphere contract for the past 20 years (the 2004 accession of the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to NATO was particularly painful for Moscow), Mr. Putin has drawn a line through Ukraine, roughly following the curve of the Dnepr River. He'll make it a new Iron Curtain if he has to.

This crisis won't end soon, even if Kiev and its allies in the West agree tomorrow to recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea as legal. If Mr. Putin gains the Crimean Peninsula while losing influence over the rest of Ukraine, he's lost very badly indeed. And – remember – he's thinking about how he'll be judged in Russian history textbooks, not the ones that will some day be printed in North America and Western Europe.

Moscow sees only one route to resolve this conflict. Russia and the West (the Kremlin doesn't consider the current Ukrainian government worthy of inclusion in discussions about Ukraine's future) can make a deal that redesigns Ukraine along the decentralized lines of Bosnia-Herzegovina. That means expanded autonomy for the Russian-speaking east and south of the country, making those regions into de facto Russian protectorates. The whole of Ukraine would be made politically and militarily neutral, never to join NATO or the EU.

It's a deal some policy makers in the West might be tempted to sign, if only to avoid a prolonged showdown with Moscow that would be costly for all sides. But any Ukrainian leader who agreed to such a pact drafted without the participation of Ukrainians would almost certainly see the "Maidan" – the street movement that ousted Mr. Yanukovych – turn on them next. There's the May 25 election to think about.

The Kremlin believes it can win this war without fighting it, and is counting on the West to force Kiev to accept its terms in order to keep Mr. Putin from sending his troops across the border. As tiny Georgia discovered in 2008 during its own brief war with Russia, NATO isn't coming to the rescue of a non-member state.

But the Ukrainians that Mr. Putin is wishing out of the equation just spent three months staring down Mr. Yanukovych's riot police. They won't simply back down now. Neither will Mr. Putin.

The worrying thing about phoney wars is they often prove only a prelude to the real thing.

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