Vladimir Putin does like to keep us guessing. While western governments were warning in increasingly apocalyptic terms of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, instead he has chosen to recognise the Donbas and Lugansk pseudo-states and to send in Russian ‘peacekeepers’. Is this a step back, forward, or sideways? Only Vladimir Vladimirovich knows for sure.
The very theatricality of this conflict — already highlighted by James Forsyth — was given a new twist by a surreal meeting of the Security Council, nationally televised in which Putin forced his most powerful underlings to incriminate themselves. Some did so with genuine satisfaction, some with clear reluctance, others with sycophantic enthusiasm; all agreed in turn that the Minsk II peace process was dead and that it was time to recognise the pseudo-states.
In part this seems to have been a piece of enforced collective responsibility — Stalin used to get the rest of the Politburo to sign execution lists — and in part a demonstrative expression of the tsar’s personal authority over his boyars. His foreign intelligence chief, Sergei Naryshkin, managed to fumble his lines and was mercilessly bullied for his pains. And when Dmitri Kozak, the troubleshooter who had actually been talking to the Ukrainians tried to express his views, he was curtly cut off.
Of course, for all that Putin was at pains to pretend this was an open exchange of views and that he would then consider all that had been said, a decision had clearly already been made, and shortly thereafter he made his announcement. But what does this mean?
The short answer is that it means whatever Putin wants it to mean.