The drama proceeds among the different elements in Ukraine, Russia, the rest of Europe and the United States with hope that it leads away from the possibility of war and toward a new status quo that includes dialogue and peaceful resolution of problems.
One positive element is that in response to a request from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has withdrawn a battalion of troops, several hundred, from the Ukrainian border. He can put them back whenever he wants easily, and tens of thousands of Russian troops remain in striking distance of Ukraine, but as a gesture the withdrawal can be seen as a step in the right direction.
Less useful is the Ukrainian parliament’s approval of participation in NATO exercises in Ukraine this summer. NATO and the United States may feel a need to assert the ability to hold such exercises, but Ukraine is not a member of NATO and has no treaty right requiring the United States and other NATO members to defend it from Russia. Russia will consider the exercises provocative, and the world will be treated to armed NATO and Russian forces maneuvering on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine border with the risk of hostilities breaking out. On Tuesday, foreign ministers from the 28 NATO member countries met in Brussels and suspended “civilian and military cooperation” with Russia.
Another Russia-Ukraine quarrel that the United States, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund find themselves in is Ukraine’s unpaid natural gas bills to Russia. These are estimated to stand at $1.7 billion. Russia was offering Ukraine natural gas at bargain rates until the fallout between them. The Russians now want Ukraine to pay up at the market rate. The irony is that Western aid to the Ukrainian government may end up going to the Russians to pay Ukraine’s gas bill. That is not what the United States, the European Union and the IMF expected.
The overriding good news is that, beyond their meeting Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have continued to stay in close touch to see that matters between America and Russia do not deteriorate further over Ukraine.