Vladimir Putin may still order an invasion of Ukraine, as President Biden said yesterday. Putin has long been obsessed with Ukraine, viewing it as part of Russia’s immediate orbit. And more than 150,000 Russian troops remain ready to pour over the border if Putin gives the order.
Yet Putin and his top deputies have taken several high-profile steps over the past 48 hours that seem to signal a de-escalation of the crisis. Why? Nobody knows for sure because Putin often shrouds his motives and his plans. But with help from our colleagues in Washington, Moscow and Kyiv, today’s newsletter looks at three possible explanations.
1. Always been a bluff
Putin, after meeting with Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany yesterday, said that Russia had decided “to partially pull back troops” from the border. That announcement followed other signs of de-escalation since Monday, including encouraging comments from Russia’s top diplomatic officials about negotiations.
There does not seem to be any immediate cause for Moscow’s change in tone, which suggests that perhaps Putin never planned to invade, despite the huge buildup of troops. “Putin might have been bluffing all along,” Edward Wong, a Times correspondent in Washington, told me, “so seeking a diplomatic resolution where he can wring guarantees, however small, from Ukraine, the United States and Western European nations might be the best outcome for him.”
Putin certainly has reasons not to invade. The sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies could damage Russia’s economy. The majority of Russians don’t want an invasion, the Levada Center, a pollster, says. A war would also likely involve large casualties on both sides — including among Ukrainian civilians, many of whom have relatives in Russia, notes Anton Troianovski, the Times’s Moscow bureau chief.
Notably, several prominent experts in Russia, including some who are close to the Kremlin, have been expressing skepticism for weeks about an invasion. Andrew Kramer, a Times correspondent who’s been reporting from Ukraine since November, has noticed similar skepticism in Kyiv and among Ukrainian soldiers at the border. “You would expect more nervousness than you actually see,” Andrew said, “and part of the bigger story here is that the Ukrainians have been less worried on an official level and in society than the U.S. government about the Russian buildup.”
One former Russian official told The Economist that the Kremlin believed it had more to gain from the threat of war than from war itself. That threat may already have won Putin some concessions: Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, suggested this week that he might abandon Ukraine’s effort to join NATO, which would meet one of Putin’s demands. Speaking at the White House yesterday, Biden also showed a willingness to negotiate, saying the U.S. was open to new arms-control agreements with Russia.
Other analysts believe Putin may soon launch smaller attacks against Ukraine, which would help give him influence over the country while also seeming almost like a compromise relative to the threat of a full-scale invasion. One potential smaller attack: stepped-up military assaults by Russia in the Donbas region, a disputed part of Ukraine.
“His main goals — including less of a Western military presence in the region and a guarantee that Ukraine won’t join NATO — have not changed,” Anton told my colleague Claire Moses.
2. Just timing
On Friday, the Biden administration took the unusual step of telling reporters that its intelligence suggested Putin might invade as soon as Wednesday, Feb. 16 — today, that is. The announcement was part of a broader U.S. campaign to release information about Putin’s apparent intentions, partly to make it harder for him to justify an invasion with a false pretext.
Given that announcement, what might be the one day that Putin would least want to invade? “Everyone was talking about the 16th as invasion day,” Anton said. “So what better day than the 15th to announce you’re pulling your troops back?”
One thing to watch: Will Russia truly withdraw large numbers of troops in coming days, or did the comments by Putin and his aides over the past two days exaggerate those plans?
“I take the news that Russia announced it begins to withdraw troops from the Ukrainian border with extreme caution,” Olga Tokariuk, a Kyiv-based journalist, tweeted yesterday. “Let’s see if they actually do it.” Biden, in his remarks, said, “We have not yet verified that Russian military units are returning to their home bases.”
As Edward Wong put it, “Putin likes to cultivate an aura of unpredictability, and the physical signs of de-escalation are minor at best.”
3. An effective pushback
Edward spent last week traveling with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a trip around the Pacific and said he was struck by how synchronized the messages from the U.S. and its allies in Asia and Europe sounded. Earlier in the Ukraine standoff, such coordination was not a given. Germany, in particular, seemed hesitant to stand up to Russia.
“There’s also a strong argument that Putin has overplayed his hand,” Edward explained. “The Biden administration and European governments have stayed in lock step on pushing back.”
The public response inside Ukraine may also have reminded Putin how costly a war would be. Many citizens seem ready to take up arms if Russia invades, and Ukrainian nationalists have been pressuring Zelensky to remain strong.
(Related, from Times Opinion: Thomas Friedman praises Biden’s handling of the crisis, adding, “The West might not be dead quite yet.” And Anastasia Edel writes: “I’m Russian and my family is Ukrainian. War would be a tragedy.”)
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