THIS time last week US and Nato officials along with their Russian counterparts were preparing to sit down in Geneva, Brussels, and Vienna for meetings most observers agreed could prove crucial to peace and security in Europe.

No one expected the talks to be easy or very productive, but by last ­Thursday ­already any promising dialogue at the meetings was effectively dead in the ­water.

While Sergei Rybkov, deputy foreign minister and Russia’s lead negotiator in the talks said they had run into a “dead end”, Michael Carpenter, US ­ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) starkly warned that “the drumbeat of war is sounding loudly”.

The responses from both sides should be a wake-up call to all of us regarding the big and weighty events happening in ­Europe right now.

For with every day that passes, ­political events and decisions with the potential to profoundly impact on the future of the continent and even destabilise the world, are unfolding before our very eyes. That said, here in the UK you could be ­forgiven for barely noticing, such is the current – if understandable – fixation with ­“partygate”.

As delegates to the OSCE in Europe met in Vienna last Thursday to discuss ways to avert a potential new Russian ­attack on Ukraine, their gathering came on the back of other flashpoint crises that are playing out from Bosnia to ­Kazakhstan all of which are increasingly leaving ­Russia and the West at loggerheads.

Details regarding what lay behind ­recent events in Kazakhstan remain murky. But what’s clear is that the ­country’s ­president Kassym-Zhomart ­Tokayev turned to ­Russia, allowing ­President Vladimir ­Putin to send in paratroopers to help restore ­order.

This gave Putin the chance to ­declare that he would not allow any more ­“colour revolutions,” a kind of shorthand for ­making sure that autocratic regimes like those of Kazakhstan or Belarus will ­always be able to crush peaceful protests with Moscow’s help.

It effectively also allowed the Russian leader to reaffirm his status as kingpin in the region and other places deemed to fall under Russia’s sphere of influence.

Some analysts describe Putin’s moves as a work in progress that has been ­underway for some time, pointing for ­example to the way he reasserted ­Russian control over the South Caucasus in 2020 by ending the Azerbaijani-Armenian war on his terms. Last spring too, the West was left ­making empty overtures of ­outrage as ­Putin kept Belarusian ­President ­Alexander ­Lukashenko in ­power.

Just last weekend too Russia’s ­presence was on display in Republika Srpska (RS) one of two entities in Bosnia and ­Herzegovina and led by Serb nationalist Milorad Dodik a member of the country’s tripartite presidency.

At Dodik’s behest a banned celebration went ahead dubbed the “Day of Republika Srpska”, (RS). The event marked the establishment of the Bosnian Serb state of RS in 1992, a moment many consider as key in helping spark the ensuing ­conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina that became the bloodiest in Europe since the Second World War.

At Dodik’s invitation Russian diplomats were in attendance while Bosnian-Serb paramilitary forces fell in alongside the Russian motorcycle group, the Night Wolves known for its close ties to the Kremlin and promoting Putin’s brand of Russian nationalism.

Not surprisingly the arrival of the Night Wolves, as part of what they described as a nine-day “Russian Balkans” tour stoked fears among Bosnian and international officials that their real purpose is to stoke anti-Western sentiment and push for a separatist movement among Serbs in the country, something the group was similarly accused of doing during the separatist revolt in Ukraine.

Which brings us back to last week’s failed diplomatic talks aimed at finding ways to avert a potential new Russian ­attack on Ukraine. Depending on who you ask or listen to there are two ways of interpreting the current escalation in ­tensions between Russia and the West.

Some analysts maintain that Moscow’s motives continue to be driven primarily by the need to create a bulwark against or curtail Nato expansion in Central and Eastern Europe.

They reference Moscow’s greatest ­grievance being the belief that the West tricked the former Soviet Union by ­breaking promises made at the end of the Cold War in 1989-1990 that Nato would not expand to the east.

Putin himself reiterated that grievance back in 2007 in his now famous speech to the Munich Security Conference in which the Russian leader accused the West of reneging on its assurances and leaving international law in ruins.

But some international security ­experts take a very different view of Moscow’s ­current playbook. They argue that what we are witnessing over places like Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, or ­Bosnia is part of a Putin- inspired policy of ­putting Moscow back centre stage on the geopolitical map or rekindling “vanished dreams” of a “greater Russia”.

“Recent actions by Russia show a more assertive posture, driven more by ­Russia’s desired outcomes than by defensive ­concerns,” says Keir Giles, senior ­consulting fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House.

“This applies not only to the ­actions themselves which no longer seek ­deniability but also to how Russia ­presents them, no longer aiming to maintain the fiction that they are well-intentioned,” ­argues Giles.

As if to underline Moscow’s claim that its motives are purely defensive, ­foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday ­described Russia’s demands that Nato will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations as essential for the progress of diplomatic efforts to defuse soaring tensions over Ukraine.

“We have run out of patience,” Lavrov said at a news conference. “The West has been driven by hubris and has ­exacerbated tensions in violation of its obligations and common sense.”

Upping the ante even further though, Lavrov said Russia expects Washington and Nato to provide a written response to its demands this week and that ­Moscow would not wait indefinitely for the ­Western response.

For its part Russia has always known that its two main requests were ­impossible for the US and Nato to agree to. Analysts say asking for a ban on Ukraine and ­Georgia joining the alliance and a ­demand that Nato scale back its military deployments to the level of 1997 before newly independent states of the former communist bloc joined the alliance was always a non-starter.

Russia’s dual strategy of on the one hand insisting that it only seeks to roll back Nato expansionism, while on the ­other making very assertive moves ­elsewhere has led some commentators to the conclusion that a divided and ­confused Western alliance doesn’t know how to deal with the challenge Putin poses.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) last week in an article entitled: ­Putin Is Running Rings Around the West, American academic Walter Russell Mead, a former specialist in US foreign policy at Yale University, was pulling no punches.

“Lost in a narcissistic fog of ­grandiose pomposity, Western diplomats spent the past decade dismissing the Russian ­president as the knuckle-dragging relic of a discarded past,” opined Mead.

“As then-Secretary of State John Kerry sniffed during Mr Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a ­completely trumped-up pretext,” Mead added.

What Putin’s real goal in many ­countries that were once within the ­Soviet orbit, Mead then points out, “is to re-establish ultimate control while leaving subordinate rulers in place”.

Mead is not alone in his thinking with many other security analysts also ­insisting that faced with such Russian strategic ambitions, Europe is arguably more hamstrung and vulnerable than it has been for years.

To begin with, some European leaders are still leery of American commitment in the wake of the Trump administration’s willingness to play fast and loose with the Nato alliance. They know all too well that the US too is in a state of political ­uncertainty and in no mood for foreign military adventures or campaigns after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Then there is Europe’s dependency on Russian oil and natural gas which ­undermines any political leverage it might have using economic sanctions against Moscow.

Putin’s threats have already convinced Germans and other Europeans for ­example that the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline is not just a business deal, but rather a means of geopolitical leverage.

The $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline would send Russian gas under the ­Baltic Sea to Europe via Germany. It was ­completed late last year but is pending ­approvals by Germany and the EU that may not come until the middle of the year.

Speaking a few days ago during a meeting of the EU’s foreign affairs and defence ministers in Brest, foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, insisted that the future of the Nord Stream 2 is likely linked to any possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

But the Kremlin it would appear has concluded that there is little appetite in the West to confront Russia on Ukraine, beyond economic sanctions. Even with its own considerable economic woes, Putin’s regime may very well prove less vulnerable to the sanctions the US – especially – has chosen as the main diplomatic weapon of response to date.

“Russia’s leadership has also come to believe that the West is extremely risk-averse and not ready to call the Kremlin’s bluff,” observed Dr Dumitru Minzarari an associate in the Eastern Europe and Eurasia research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

“The brazenness of the threats, the ­reference to Nato’s ‘humiliation’ in ­Afghanistan and interviews with ­Russian and foreign experts confirming the ­strategic timidity of the West – all of this speaks to that,” wrote Minzarari in the online newspaper Fair Observer recently.

Following last week’s burst of short-lived diplomatic energy there is little to take away on the plus side. The fact that no one walked out of the talks and diplomacy continues at least for now, offers some hope that a military confrontation can be avoided.

But tensions this weekend are now arguably higher than ever before after Washington accused Russia of planning a “false-flag operation” in eastern Ukraine as part of its efforts to create a “pretext for invasion.”

A US official said such “sabotage ­activities” and “information ­operations” would serve to accuse “Ukraine of ­preparing an imminent attack against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine”, ­adding that this could be a precursor to a military invasion starting “between ­mid-January and mid-February”.

The US warning also came as Ukraine said on Friday it was the target of a ­“massive cyber-attack” after about 70 ­government websites ceased functioning.

“Ukrainians! All your personal data has been uploaded to the public network,” read a message temporarily posted on the foreign ministry’s website.

“All data on your computer is being erased and won’t be recoverable. All ­information about you has become ­public, fear and expect the worst,” the message warned.

Ukraine’s Centre for Strategic communications, a government agency set up to counter Russia’s aggression, accused Moscow of being behind the cyber-attacks even if this had yet to be confirmed.

This weekend the time for bluff calling it would appear is rapidly running out as the war of words reach a shrill new pitch and the enormous Russian build up along the Ukrainian border indicates a situation more ominous than any sabre-rattling in the past. As a recent The New York ­editorial rightly reminded, “European wars have broken out over lesser bluffs”.

For a long time now, Putin has ­displayed a determination to reassert Russia’s role on the world stage and given such an ­ambition there is no room for western complacency. It’s a view shared by many Russia watchers including Giles

“The immediate choice facing ­democratic societies is whether Russia demanding restraints on other ­countries’ sovereignty is acceptable – and if not, then where, and at what cost, they ­decide to make a stand against it instead of ­placating Moscow. Ukraine is the ­unfortunate focal point of this broader conflict,” Giles concludes.

Here’s hoping in the coming days the drumbeat of war will sound less loudly and all sides can get back round the table and talk this through to a satisfactory and peaceful conclusion.