Western diplomats are running out of ways to say that they’re angry with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and want him to change his threatening behaviour towards Ukraine. Their words seem to have no effect, and, meanwhile, Eastern Europe continues to drift closer to the kind of conflict it thought it had left behind in the 20th century.

As Russia began surprise military drills along the Ukrainian border Thursday – a move Moscow said it was “forced” to undertake in response to a Ukrainian military crackdown on pro-Russian separatists – Foreign Minister John Baird and his Polish counterpart, Radoslaw Sikorski, searched for new descriptions of the situation.

“Getting worse, not better,” was how Mr. Baird put it after the two men discussed the Ukrainian crisis at a meeting here in the Polish capital. “Exacerbating,” was the word Mr. Sikorski applied to Russia’s latest actions.

The foreign ministers talked of solidarity with Ukraine, and hinted at new economic sanctions against the Kremlin. But in eastern Ukraine, the slide towards some sort of war continued, with Ukrainian forces moving into the outskirts of the rebel-held city of Slavyansk, resulting in a firefight that reportedly left at least five people dead. Then the troops were swiftly withdrawn, as the Russian drills began and Ukraine’s leaders came to believe that an invasion of the country was imminent.

The retreat came shortly after Mr. Putin warned at a forum in St. Petersburg that he would see any use of Ukraine’s army against the separatists as a “serious crime.” Interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov later vowed that the “anti-terrorist operation” would continue in eastern Ukraine. He also demanded an explanation of the Russian military drills.

Canada and Poland have been among Ukraine’s staunchest allies throughout the months-old crisis. The two countries have been swiftest and loudest in their denunciations of Mr. Putin, and among the keenest supporters of economic sanctions and other measures targeting the Kremlin.

Mr. Baird and Mr. Sikorski took turns Thursday praising each other for their countries’ “principled” stances over Ukraine. But events on the ground in Ukraine showed how little the tough talk and sanctions have accomplished thus far.

U.S. President Barack Obama, speaking during a visit to Japan, said he had more sanctions “teed up” if Russia didn’t change its behaviour. But few expect they will have any more impact on the Kremlin’s short-term actions than the previous rounds of visa bans and asset freezes targeting members of Mr. Putin’s inner circle.

In their remarks, Mr. Baird and Mr. Sikorski were left emphasizing there will be “better days,” eventually, for Ukraine – while calling for unity among NATO members, a military alliance that does not include Ukraine.

Mr. Baird departs Warsaw on Friday to visit Latvia and Estonia, two ex-Soviet states with large Russian-speaking populations. The visit is meant as a show of unity with two NATO members that feel threatened by Moscow. The implicit message is that no one is willing to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. The goalposts have shifted to stopping Mr. Putin from going any further.

The West thought it had a struck a deal with Russia last week in Geneva, one that saw all sides – including the Russian and Ukrainian governments – agree to help disarm illegal groups and end the occupation of seized buildings. It was supposed to calm the situation in eastern Ukraine, while the cherry for Russia appeared to be that the deal made no mention of returning the Crimean Peninsula, which it had seized and annexed in March.

But the pro-Russian militants continued to dig in for a fight, while the Ukrainian government appeared reluctant to carry out its end of the deal by ousting the Ukrainian nationalists who still occupy parts of central Kiev two months after the pro-Western revolution there. Amid the rising violence in Slavyansk – which followed a serious of kidnappings and killings near the city – the Geneva deal now appears to be in tatters, with Russia and the West trading barbs over which side is not fulfilling it.

Russia, for its part, says the problem in Ukraine is that Mr. Turchynov’s government, which came to power after a February revolution that ousted the Moscow-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych, is illegitimate. The Kremlin believes Mr. Turchynov gets his orders from Washington, which – in the Russian narrative – is making a Cold War-style play to gain control of Ukraine. “I am convinced that our American colleagues can and should use their influence to make the present Kiev authorities not just realize but fulfill their responsibility for what is happening,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Thursday.

“I have for some time thought that they would stop at Crimea,” Mr. Baird said in Warsaw. But he said he now felt “a great deal of fear” that Mr. Putin was intent on repeating the Crimea scenario in eastern Ukraine, where Mr. Baird accused Russia of having sent “provocative thugs” to stir up a separatist rebellion.

Mr. Sikorski said that Mr. Putin’s Russia – and its new doctrine of protecting Russian speakers beyond its borders – was a threat not just to Ukraine, but to all of Europe. He called for NATO to “get back to basics”

“We listen carefully to what President Putin says, and he seems to be very frank in his intentions. What he says he wants to do is something that all of Europe should be concerned about, because every European country has national minorities, and we have learned over the 20th century that changing borders by force to protect them leads to hell,” Mr. Sikorski said in an interview ahead of his meeting with Mr. Baird. “Therefore this kind of ideology is a threat to everyone.”

NATO, Mr. Sikorski said, needs “to get back to basics, in response to events that have proved that whereas it’s still true that conflict inside the European Union is unthinkable, conflict outside the European Union is not only thinkable, but seems to be growing.”

“We should firm up the red line that is treaty-based. Namely that NATO territory is sacrosanct. NATO territory is out of bounds for, sort of, post-Soviet or neo-imperial irredentism,” he continued. “We need to, belatedly, make NATO security guarantees credible.”

Mr. Sikorski said that to change Mr. Putin’s behaviour, it was imperative to take away the Kremlin’s energy weapon by reducing Europe’s reliance on Russian energy. Like much of Eastern Europe, Poland relies on Russia to supply an overwhelming share of its natural gas.

Mr. Sikorski denied that NATO was effectively abandoning non-members, such as Ukraine, to defend themselves against Russia.

He lamented Poland’s failed efforts in recent years to patch up its relationship with Russia by tackling the historical grievances between the two countries that date back centuries. Part of that effort was the creation of the state-funded Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding.

Sitting in his quiet office in central Warsaw, the director of the centre, Slawomir Debski, says he can feel his work coming undone as suspicion of Russia rises among a Polish population that – until 25 years ago – lived under a harsh Communist regime that got its orders in Moscow.

“If we are talking about building confidence between our political elites, our job became much more difficult,” Mr. Debski said. “There’s no proof right now that the Russians are interested in building confidence with anybody.”

WARSAW — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Apr. 24 2014, 8:37 PM EDT
Last updated Friday, Apr. 25 2014, 7:17 AM EDT