Mark Galeotti

Putin steps back from the Ukrainian brink

Putin steps back from the Ukrainian brink
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After weeks building up forces in Crimea and close to the Ukrainian border — over 100,000, all told — Moscow is now saying it plans to pull most of them back to barracks. Is this a climb-down, mission accomplished, or mind games?

Of course, we’ll have to see what actually happens. We’ve seen footage of tanks being loaded back onto railway cars and soldiers taking down tents, but until we have independent verification of substantial movements, we need to be cautious.

After all, in 2008, Russian troops deployed to the Caucasus for major military exercises were just packing up when they were promptly ordered back to launch their five-day invasion of Georgia. That said, the timing was then driven by the way hot-headed Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili succumbed to needling by Russian-backed rebels, launching an attack on secessionist South Ossetia that gave Moscow the excuse it was looking for.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is well aware of this danger and has said he plans to give Vladimir Putin no such excuses. He also has something like ten times as many soldiers under arms as the Georgians had: if the Russians did launch the major offensive some analysts were predicting, while they would likely win, they would take serious losses.

The undeclared war in Ukraine’s Donbas region isn’t ending. The rebellious ‘people’s republics’ will continue their campaign of skirmishes along the front line, armed and supported by Russian troops. Some of the recent deployments with probably stay in place, notably a paratrooper unit in Crimea, as part of the steady militarisation of the region.

Nonetheless, the immediate crisis looks to be scaling down, with Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu presenting this as nothing more than the end of exercises and snap inspections, even though these had actually been conjured to justify the concentration of forces in the first place.

Is this a Russian climb-down? It would be easy to see it as such, and already there are some claiming Moscow was deterred from taking the offensive by US sanctions and support for Kiev. That’s a bit of a stretch, though. Instead, it is worth considering what the Kremlin probably had in mind.

The Kremlin is not comfortable with the current stalemate in the Donbass. It is having to support the bankrupt ‘people’s republics’ and is paying the price in sanctions, but Kiev appears to be able to live with the status quo. It likely hoped to be able to intimidate Zelensky back to the negotiations table, on Moscow’s terms. We probably would have seen this kind of move last year, had Covid not disrupted everything.

In this, it failed. Indeed, Zelensky actually managed to out-point Putin by issuing an audacious invitation to meet him inside the Donbass war zone. The Russian President declined, telling him that he needed to talk to the leaders of the ‘people’s republics’ instead, or else if he wanted to talk about bilateral relations, he could come to Moscow.

However, that does not mean Moscow leaves the field with nothing. First of all, the Kremlin has demonstrated its capacity to quickly assemble massive forces in-theatre. While Ukraine’s requests to join Nato are likely to be met with kind words and careful evasions, the Kremlin’s message is that what didn’t happen this time could easily happen the next.

Secondly, after President Biden described Putin as a ‘killer’ in March, in April he invited his Russian counterpart to a summit.

The Kremlin clearly sets great stake on Russia being treated as a serious power by the Americans. Just as the intervention in Syria pushed Obama into an uncomfortable meeting with Putin at the United Nations, so too sabre-rattling around Ukraine is being credited in some Russian circles as having ‘forced’ Biden into extending an invitation.

Of course, nothing has been solved. The Russians continue to build up their forces in Crimea, and the Donbass war simmers. Kiev and Moscow continue to disagree over the sequencing of the Minsk II peace accords, and in the meantime people are dying on both sides of the line of contact. But at least the nightmare scenario of a full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia seems to be receding. This time, and for now.