Not since the Cold War have relations between Russia and the West been more dangerous than they are now.
I dealt with Russia for more than 20 years in the Foreign Office , and served as Ambassador to Russia between 2004 and 2008. So I’m disturbed to see that communication between our military forces is currently close to zero.
Just one incident – an aircraft collision, for example – could escalate conflict immediately. There is simply no safety net in place any more.
Yes, Russia is a far smaller power than the West, certainly smaller than it was during the Cold War , but because of that, it is perhaps even more dangerous.
And the one place where its strength matches ours is in nuclear weapons. So if Putin really feels his back is to the wall, it is in that direction that he will turn.
The breakdown of our relationship has been driven by clashes in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine; and of course, in Syria.
It has spiralled over the past year with Russia’s furious shows of force – warships sailing through the English Channel, jets near UK and US airspace, and the release of photographs deliberately displaying its nuclear weapons.
Now events this week begin to make things look even more precarious.
The United States’ confirmation of Russia’s cyber attack on the US election – an attack it sees as striking at the heart of its democratic process – has been described as a political Pearl Harbour.
US intelligence agencies and the White House decided that the Russians had hacked into Democratic Party emails.
They had then leaked them to embarrass Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton .
Despite angry Russian denials, the US decided it could not ignore such aggression.
On Thursday, at President Barack Obama’s command, 35 Russian diplomats were expelled from the US, and two Russian compounds in New York and Maryland were shut down, as well as sanctions imposed on intelligence agencies and individuals. In my time, expulsions like this took place, but maybe one or two people at a time.
Actions on this scale have not been seen since the 1970s.
Initially it looked as though Russia would retaliate tit for tat – 35 American diplomats for 35 Russian diplomats.
Yet, having denied all hacking charges, and his henchmen having dismissed Obama as a lame duck, Putin decided to take the moral high ground. He unexpectedly announced no US diplomats would be expelled from Russian soil.
It was a surprise move, but carefully choreographed, I suspect.
Obama will not be US president much longer. Donald Trump, the candidate always favoured by Putin over Hillary Clinton , will soon be installed in the White House.
This was Putin’s opportunity to look magnanimous, to take the high ground, and to offer an olive branch to the man who will soon be US president.
He occupied that high ground splendidly, biding his time, allowing Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to make his expulsion threats, and then making his own announcement, even inviting US diplomats’ children to the Kremlin’s New Year celebrations.
I believe behind this shows a very genuine wish by Putin to build a good relationship with the US again. Russia is deeply alarmed at how fragile its relationship now is with the West.
Russia wants allies in its war against Islamic State. It doesn’t want to be lumbered alone with the aftermath of the Syrian crisis.
It needs a strong relationship with Trump. And Trump could be the man to bring about a thaw in relations. He has made clear his wish to work with Putin, and has avoided joining Obama in condemning the Russian cyber attack.
He has selected a Secretary of State who has deep experience of doing worthwhile business with Russia.
Trump and Putin see themselves as strong rulers.
If they can form a close relationship their countries should follow.
But there is much that could go wrong; so many areas where the two of them, both proud and touchy men who like things on their own terms, could spar. Take Ukraine, where soldiers still fight Russian-backed insurgents in trenches – no solution seems to have been found there.
Take the economic sanctions America holds against Russia as a bargaining chip in this and other areas, which Putin is likely to demand are dropped.
Video will play in
The US expelled 35 Russian diplomats in response to hacking attacks
Take the future of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, whom Putin wants to stay and America to go. Putin and Trump may want to agree but their military and diplomatic establishments are at daggers drawn, and will resist any kind of détente.
So much rests on their relationship now. And it matters to Britain too.
We, of course, also face threats from Russia – in our seas, our skies, and in our own cyber systems.
Hacking goes on all the time. And MI5 has said it is worried about the number of Russian intelligence agents based here in the UK, and how much Russian activity goes on here.
We are a member of NATO. If the US and Russia confront one another we would certainly be drawn in.
Trump and Putin perhaps have much in common in terms of their personal traits – but they also have much on which to disagree.
Whether that safety net can be rebuilt depends on what middle ground can be created between them.
70 years of East v West stand-offs
1945 The Soviets, under Joseph Stalin, began establishing puppet regimes in Eastern Europe, alarming and angering the US.
1949 The Soviets explode their first nuclear bomb launching an arms race with the West.
1950 US and Soviet pilots begin fighting and killing one another as part of a proxy war in Korea, the first major armed conflict of the Cold War. Later, proxy wars of sorts were to be fought in Vietnam and Afghanistan too, but in these cases, troops did not meet in the field.
1961 The USSR erected the Berlin Wall, designed to halt the increasing number of East Germans fleeing Communist East Berlin to the West.
1962 Cuba was being led by Soviet ally, Fidel Castro. American spy planes discovered Castro was installing Soviet nuclear missiles capable of quickly striking targets in the US. The United States navy blockaded Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
1999 NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia, an old Soviet ally, during the conflict in Kosovo caused outrage in the Russian government, and within the country, anti-American feeling ran high
2003 Russia objected to the Iraq invasion. The US-led coalition went ahead regardless.
2008 Russia invades Georgia. The US and NATO call for an end to hostilities. Russia signs a ceasefire and withdraws troops.
2014 Russia annexes the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. World leaders condemn this as illegal and Russia is suspended from the G8. International sanctions are introduced against Russia.
2015 It is reported Russia has deployed some elite forces from Ukraine to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad. A war begins between the Russian-backed regime and the US-backed rebels.