International crises have the effect of blurring those that went just before, transforming what yesterday seemed urgent, dangerous and world changing into a familiar drama that can safely be neglected. A month or so ago, before Iraq, there was no more important issue than Ukraine. Russia had annexed Crimea and threatened to invade Ukraine's eastern provinces, breaking treaties and most of the rules of the international game along the way. A new cold war was upon us.
Then the realisation dawned that Vladimir Putin had concluded, or perhaps had always understood, that an invasion would destroy what remained of the relationship with the west, have major economic costs in the shape of more serious sanctions, and saddle Russia with the burden of dealing with a depressed industrial region - as if it didn't have enough of those already. President Putin moved most of his troops, accepted the election of Petro Poroshenko as legitimate, and seemed ready to scale down his meddling in eastern Ukraine while preserving his leverage by continuing some support for separatist groups there. The outside world may have felt that the worst was past. Then Iraq blew up, and all eyes are on the Middle East.
But the Ukraine crisis is far from over, as was shown by a bloody fight for control of Donetsk airport only a day after the results of the presidential election came in. There have been higher casualties on both the government and the separatist side since the election than before, partly because of the use of heavier weapons. Forty nine Ukrainian servicemen were killed last weekend when a military transport plane was shot down. Things have got very nasty indeed.
The new Ukrainian president instituted a dual policy on the issue of eastern Ukraine. He would continue to send Ukrainian forces to retake key positions from the separatists while trying to avoid pitched battles and civilian casualties, but at the same time offering negotiations and ceasefires. In other words he rejected the timetable that Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, persistently put forward: that Ukrainian forces should withdraw from the eastern provinces and then, and only when they were out or at least fully stood down, could negotiations begin.
Poroshenko's fight-and-talk policy is risky, but puts Russia in a difficult position. If the fighting escalates further, Moscow could only stick to its line by staging a bigger and less deniable military infiltration, something that the Ukrainian leader presumably believes it does not wish to do. Poroshenko has now spoken of a unilateral ceasefire.
On the face of it this might seem a concession to the Russian timetable, but Poroshenko's rider has always been that such a ceasefire should be followed by the separatists laying down their arms, Russian fighters going home, and a "sealing of the border". The implication is that, if none of these were forthcoming, Ukrainian operations would resume.
The fact that this particular version of the offer Poroshenko has been making ever since he took office came after a telephone conversation with Putin may be a reason to hope that something tangible will come of it. The truth is that a solution that should prove at least moderately satisfactory to all has been on the table for a long time. A degree of autonomy for the eastern regions under a more federal constitution for the whole of Ukraine would meet any reasonable demands from local people. That, together with a firm commitment that Nato membership will not be sought, should be enough for Moscow.
President Putin's priority now should be damage limitation. He has scooped up Crimea and reinforced his nationalist image at home. That has apparently not lost him any friends in Asia.
But he has strained relations with the rest of the developed world to breaking point. He must weigh the advantages, if there really are any, of maintaining a quasi dependency in Ukraine, or just a continuing capacity to meddle, against the need to have a tolerable relationship with Poroshenko's Ukraine and with the EU and the US.
It was Kierkegaard who said of news that it was like spaghetti. The effort of getting just a forkful into your mouth in one go without leaving any loose ends made you forget almost everything else. The combination of a relentless news cycle and our human need to deal with one problem at a time means we think of news as a series of dramas, one after another, whereas in fact they messily overlap, and the old crises continue to unfold behind the new. The Iraq crisis, like Ukraine, will in time be superseded - but that does not mean it will have been resolved.
Martin Woollacott, The Guardian