A Ukrainian soldier looks out from an armored personnel carrier at a checkpoint near the village of Salkovo.

A Ukrainian soldier looks out from an armored personnel carrier at a checkpoint near the village of Salkovo.

Perhaps it's the sort of perspective that comes with retirement. Maybe it's the detachment that comes with not being caught up in the day-to-day turmoil of the political fray. Nevertheless, and for whatever reason, John Howard says he isn't in any way surprised by Russia's move to re-annex the Crimea.

What's far more important, though, (and considerably at variance with our current government's supposed shock and anger) are his thoughts on what Australia's reaction should be. The former PM insists we should just move on, instead of indulging in impotent and pointless protests.

On Thursday, Howard was opening an extension to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute when he insisted - emphatically - that no one should be surprised that President Vladimir Putin had sent troops across the border. He advised calm, saying he doesn't want to see any move to prevent Russia attending the coming G8 meeting. He says this would be self-defeating, an action serving no purpose except to further isolate the former superpower. His is the tough, well thought-through, traditional conservative approach - although it stands strongly at variance with the current government's reaction to the crisis. Howard's thinking comes straight from the school of real-politics; devoid of rubbish or futile symbolic gestures such as cancelling visa's for Putin's oligarchic backers.

Compare this to the waffle, noise and idiocy coming from Berlin and Washington. Wringing their hands, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel wish things were different - but why, exactly? Nobody believes the result of the supposedly democratic ''referendum'' that announced to the world that 95 per cent of Crimean's wished to rejoin mother Russia; but that doesn't mean that it's not a majority opinion. To the contrary, it's almost certain that a free and fair election would have come to exactly the same result. Doesn't Obama believe in freedom of choice? Does Merkel really believe that an arbitrary line drawn on a map should never be changed?

Although only one person has so far been killed it would be very wrong to underestimate the danger of the West's current approach. It is wrong, very wrong, in two significant ways as well as a myriad of little ones. Firstly, critically, is the bankruptcy of its moral approach.

When the East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia we enthusiastically supported their efforts to rule their own destiny (even if we have, since then, successfully prevented Timor from receiving a fair share of the oil revenues from the seabed). And yet now Tony Abbott tells us that the Crimea can't do the same thing. Why not, exactly? Just because (Ukrainian-born) Nikita Khrushchev made his own capricious choice to assign the province to Ukraine back in 1954, doesn't mean that this wrong shouldn't be righted today.

The second lie has been the mis-reading of history. According to some this sort of thing has supposedly never happened since before World War II. What rubbish. The pretend ''Act of Free Choice'' uniting Dutch West Papua to Indonesia is merely one of the bigger fabrications that springs to mind - but there are loads of others. It is, in fact, the radical redrawing of European frontiers in 1945 that's still being slowly unwound today. The key is to avoid the sort of fighting accompanying the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia. Instead the international community should attempt to engender the empowerment flowing from the reunification of Germany. Incredibly, it's Merkel herself who doesn't seem to understand that she's the one standing in the path of self-determination.

What's most worrying about the approach of Western leaders is their seeming determination to demonstrate their incapacity. The first imperative is to manage events at the immediate diplomatic level. Doing this requires an understanding of the practical tools to hand to achieve the desired outcome. In this the West has failed. Utterly.

Putin was always going to take Crimea. By enthusiastically embracing the return of the Crimean peninsula to Russia, the government in Kiev might have had more chance of preserving its controversial Eastern frontier intact. Demonstrations of impotence are hardly likely to give Moscow any reason to pause. The Western nations have managed to mishandle their moves so completely as to make Neville Chamberlain appear like a statesman. This is worrying given developments in our region and the East China Sea in particular.

This is a flashpoint where a mis-step could suddenly ignite a truly disastrous conflict. Allowing incompetents to deal with such dangerous issues is like giving children fireworks. This gives Tony Abbott's forthcoming trip to the region real urgency.

It's vital he de-escalates his support for the increasingly strident and bellicose government in Tokyo. Instead he should spend time repairing our relationship with Beijing and remaining close to Seoul. China is the rising power. Today it has been pushed into supporting Russia over Crimea. But Beijing is very worried about genuine self-determination. The very last thing this country wants is the redrawing of boundaries in places like Tibet and Western China. Time for a bit of calm.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.