DAVID Leask, The Herald's Chief Reporter, wrote about how confusing this Ukraine business must be to most of us (Inside Track, The Herald, February 10).


Actually, it is much easier to understand if we look at recent history, and its continuing impact upon Russian policy about what it regards as "the near abroad," a new form of words to describe a sphere of influence and interest - something that has guided states' policies since early times.

Vladimir Putin's Russia is not a nice regime (to put it diplomatically), but were he replaced tomorrow by a shining example of a democrat, there would be no change in policy towards Ukraine, or any reversal on Crimea.

For Russia, the fall of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe, with its military and political establishment relegated swiftly from being in charge of a superpower, to holding the helm of a much reduced one; with Western opponents claiming, as George H W Bush did in his 1992 election campaign, that they had "won the Cold War," meaning Russia had lost it.

Scholars in the US foreign policy establishment have been debating, and doubting, whether that was a wise position to take. It was not one welcomed in Russia, and it has been an obvious part of Mr Putin's policy to try and restore what he believes is Russia's rightful place at the top of the top table.

There is another important factor in Russia's policy that has not changed since Stalin's time - the need for a buffer zone between it and potential enemies. When Churchill was wrestling with the dilemma of how to protect post-war Poland against the coming Russian domination, he acknowledged in his memoirs that border security was the prime driving force of Stalin's attitude.

That was what was in Gorbachev's mind when he discussed with Bush's Secretary of state James Baker, whether to renounce using military power to keep the Eastern bloc countries in the Warsaw Pact, knowing that it meant all of them would shift into the Western European sphere.

Here lies the origin of today's crisis; Jack F Matlock Jr., the then US Ambassador to the USSR, was present when Baker and Gorbachev reached agreement that, not withstanding 500,000 Soviet troops and dependents stationed there, East Germany could merge with West Germany and the united Germany could be a Nato member.

The quid pro quo, that kept a buffer zone for Russian security was that no other former Eastern state joining the west, would be allowed into Nato. Matlock's notes have Baker saying Nato would not advance "one inch" eastwards.

That meeting, those words, those broken promises are printed in the minds of today's Russia's leadership, and they have repeatedly stated that Nato practised deception.

The Baltic states, and others, are now in Nato and the alliance would like Georgia and Ukraine to join as well.

Should that happen Russia's perceived need for a buffer zone, a major pillar of its defence policy, would be history. No Russian leader can allow that to happen.

Those in charge of Russia's state interests, watching the EU's courting of Ukraine, and loose talk about it joining Nato, along with renewed chatter in the case of Georgia, could not go unchallenged.

No one seems to ask the key question on our Western side: why does Nato need to advance to the borders of Russia? Does no one in our foreign policy establishment know about the historic nature of Russia's obsession with its security and need for a buffer zone?

When Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande met Mr Putin last week, they said nothing in public. The Russians did: that among matters to be resolved is Ukraine and Nato.

When the United Nations was established, and in recent years, there has been much talk about a new world order. The fact is spheres of influence, state interests, security policy, have not changed. That is what Ukraine is about. The involvement of Mrs Merkel and Mr Hollande? They too operate on state interests. Sanctions are hurting their economies.