A man holds a sign in a protest against Russian military intervention in the Crimea region of Ukraine in New York City. Photo: Getty Images
Thirteen years ago I was invited, in the depths of a Russian winter, to give a speech at the Moscow School of Political Studies. Afterwards, I listened late into the night - over endless glasses of vodka - to stories from students who spelt out the consequences, in terms of intimidation and sometimes death, of standing up to the warlords who governed Russia.
Most of all, however, I recall a long conversation with Rod Lyne, then the British ambassador. Recently, Lyne has distinguished himself as the only sensible and competent figure on the panel of the Chilcot inquiry, whose investigation into the Iraq War is three years overdue.
Back then, Lyne was a forceful advocate of the relatively new Russian President, Vladimir Putin. He made little attempt to gloss over his brutality and disregard for human rights. Yet he stressed that Putin was the only Russian capable of rescuing his country from the chaos and disaster into which it had plunged after the collapse of communism.
By then, it was already clear exactly how brutal Putin was prepared to be. The second Chechen war, one of the most horrific conflicts of the 21st century, was well under way. Thousands of civilians were slaughtered by indiscriminate bombing and shelling from Russian forces. Torture and extra-judicial killing were rife.
Indeed, not long after my conversation with Lyne, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum placed Chechnya on its genocide watch.
By comparison with 50,000 killed in Chechnya, the recent killings in Ukraine scarcely amount to a pinprick. Yet the conflict in Chechnya went practically unreported. Perhaps the difficulty of getting to Chechnya had something to do with it - or more probably, the impossible danger of reporting it.
Whatever the reasons, the plight of the Chechens never became a cause celebre like that of the Ukrainians. No Western government came to their aid. Indeed, after the bombing of the Twin Towers, Putin's campaign was given some kind of official endorsement, when it was loosely brought under the wider umbrella of the Bush/Blair ''war on terror''.
It is certain, however, that the British and the Americans knew exactly what Putin was like when stretching out a helping hand at the turn of the century. They knew he was a Russian patriot who would stop at nothing to restore the glory of the Soviet empire - and backed him regardless.
Not only that, but they stuck to this policy for many years. When the Russians invaded Georgia, they allowed them to get away with it. When Alexander Litvinenko - a British citizen - was murdered in London, the British government made the minimum fuss. Recently, it even tried to block the campaign by his widow, Marina, for a public inquiry (the High Court ruled unanimously in her favour last month). And when Putin resisted British requests for the extradition of the probable killer, the former KGB agent (and now Russian MP) Andrey Lugovoy, it did nothing.
There are all kinds of sound (though not very glorious) reasons not to take a stand. More and more, Europe relies on Russia for energy. British companies, not least BP, have major presences there. The City of London has made a fortune from Russia's oligarchs - who have also done wonders for Mayfair property prices. The government relies on Moscow for intelligence in the battle against al-Qaeda, and in the year ahead will be heavily dependent on its goodwill in ensuring a safe exit from Afghanistan for British troops and equipment.
One of the biggest mysteries of recent events in Ukraine is why Britain - and the US - ditched this policy of accommodation with Putin in the first place.
In November President Viktor Yanukovych resolved to abandon a co-operation treaty with the European Union, and entered instead into an agreement with Putin. Up to that point, the West had concealed any distaste for Yanukovych, but then started to ally with the protesters against his regime.
As is invariably the case, this manoeuvre went wrong.
Yanukovych's t removal, while it had popular support in Kiev, was effected with the aid of a group of violent and unpleasant right-wing parties, of which Pravy Sektor (responsible for the groups of young men today patrolling the capital with baseball bats and guns) was the most effective. There are interesting parallels here with Libya and Syria, where Western efforts to work with ''moderates'' ended up handing power to extremists.
Should Ukraine fall into chaos and extremism, it will be exactly the sort of thing that Lyne was warning against in our conversation all those years ago - and another in the West's dismal recent list of foreign policy failures, of involving itself in others' affairs only to see it backfire horribly.
Yet it would be going too far to claim that Britain has abandoned the realistic principles that Lyne was articulating, and returned to the liberal interventionism of the Blair era. For the best description of what is going on is muddle and confusion.
The truth is that Britain has at least two foreign policies. William Hague has developed a fine line in liberal rhetoric, reinforced by the politics of the pointless gesture. His trip to Kiev last week was the most meaningless visit to a foreign capital since Sir Alec Douglas-Home flew to Reykjavik at the height of the Cod War.
At the same time, others - such as Hugh Powell at the National Security Council - have been making certain that no rash or decisive actions are taken, as the memo he accidentally displayed on his way into Downing Street this week inadvertently disclosed.
The US, too, has at least two parallel foreign policies. Both President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, have set up secret private offices that work independently of the machinery of state. The result, in both Britain and America, has been a contradiction between reckless rhetoric, and extreme caution in matters of substance.
This contrast between what politicians do and what they say is, of course, endemic in advanced democracies. On domestic issues, it has been become a major cause of the collapse in trust in the political class - but it is not life-threatening. In foreign policy, though, a wide gap between rhetoric and underlying intentions is very dangerous indeed.
Mercifully, Angela Merkel has come to the rescue. The German Chancellor has put an end to talk of economic sanctions, and become the main interlocutor with Putin. This marks a vital turning point in the post-war world. Germany has long been the dominant economic power in the European Union. With Merkel in charge, it is now turning that economic power into diplomatic power.
Merkel has taken a massive step towards placing the Russian/German partnership back at the heart of Europe - an achievement that it has traditionally been an objective of British foreign policy to prevent. But then, unlike Britain, both Merkel's Germany and Putin's Russia still have a clear vision of their role on the world stage.
London Daily Telegraph