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Fear of Vladimir Putin grows in EU capitals amid spectre of 'total war'

In Brussels and other European capitals, the fear of Vladimir Putin is becoming palpable. The mood has changed in a matter of weeks from one of handwringing impotence over Ukraine to one of foreboding.

The anxiety is encapsulated in the sudden rush to Moscow by Angela Merkel and François Hollande. To senior figures closely involved in the diplomacy and policymaking over Ukraine, the Franco-German peace bid is less a hopeful sign of a breakthrough than an act of despair.

"There's nothing new in their plan, just an attempt to stop a massacre," said one senior official.

Carl Bildt, the former Swedish foreign minister, said a war between Russia and the west was now quite conceivable. A senior diplomat in Brussels, echoing the broad EU view, said arming the Ukrainians would mean war with Russia, a war that Putin would win.

Announcing the surprise mission to Kiev and Moscow, Hollande sounded grave and solemn. The Ukraine crisis, he said, started with differences, which became a conflict, which became a war, and which now risked becoming "total war".

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister and until recently the head of Nato, publicly voiced fears that Putin could expand what is seen as Soviet revisionism to countries now in Nato and the EU. In the Baltics, Putin might risk a little exercise in "hybrid warfare", he said, just to test how the western alliance would react.

That Merkel has gone to Moscow is telling in itself and speaks to the sudden gravity of the situation. The Russian-speaking German chancellor has talked to the German-speaking Putin more than 40 times in the past year as the main western mediator on Ukraine. But until Friday she had never gone to Moscow. Only a few weeks ago she vetoed a summit in Kazakhstan with Putin because she believed there was no point negotiating with someone she no longer trusted.

Putin is demanding that a large tract of eastern Ukraine, taken by force by his separatist proxies in recent weeks, be granted internationally licensed autonomy and that a new frontline be recognised as a basis for a putative ceasefire.

The parallel might be 1991 in Croatia when the Serbs took a quarter of the country and then consolidated their grip behind lines patrolled by UN peacekeepers. It crippled and destabilised Croatia.

European policymakers say this is Putin's aim in Ukraine. In Croatia the land-grab lasted four years until Zagreb, gradually armed by the Americans and Europeans, quickly routed the Serbs militarily.

The big difference then was that the Serbs were stretched by a bigger war next door in Bosnia where eventually Nato bombed them to the negotiating table. That will not happen with the Russians.

Arming the Ukrainians, meanwhile, will open up big divisions between the Americans and most Europeans. Putin is playing on those divisions as he plays on splits between the Europeans. He does not need to try very hard. The divisions are ever-present over sanctions.

On Monday the EU will impose more sanctions, extending a blacklist of pro-Russia separatists and Russians by 19 names. These penalties are minor. The broader economic sanctions in force against Russian banks and companies are more serious. They lapse in July unless extended by all EU governments.

Last year the biggest opponent was Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, whose then foreign minister, Federica Mogherini, now coordinates EU foreign policy. The new leftwing pro-Russia Greek government may be this summer's problem.

The sanctions policy has so far held up, but is showing acute strains. Senior diplomats from EU governments regularly say the sanctions are hurting but are not working because they have not changed Putin's behaviour. The EU is split in two, with Britain leading the pro-sanctions side and a sizeable group complaining that the punishment has cost the EU an estimated 15% of exports to Russia. Germany is the pivot, the swing power.

Putin is increasingly seen as a reckless gambler who calls bluffs and takes risks, and is inscrutable, paranoid and unpredictable. Trying to work out what he wants is guesswork. The Europeans sound scared.

Ukraine is a huge problem for Europe, not least the dawning realisation that fixing it will cost tens of billions and will take a very long time. But for Europe it is becoming clear that the real nightmare is not Ukraine, but Putin's Russia.

[Source: By Ian Traynor, Europe Editor, The Guardian, London, 06Feb15]

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