Putin was able to return from the war with Ukraine without looking weak

Russian President Vladimir Putin sees through the line when he shoots a Chukavin sniper rifle (SVC-380) on September 19, 2018 during a visit to the military Patriot Park in Kubinka, outside Moscow.

ALEXEY NIKOLSKY | AFP | Getty Images

Tensions between Russia and the West remain high after the US refused to comply with the demands of President Vladimir Putin, but analysts say it is not too late for him to return from a military confrontation with Ukraine.

The world is awaiting Russia’s response after Washington refused to bow to Moscow’s demands over Ukraine, including never allowing the country to join NATO, and reversing the military alliance’s efforts in Eastern Europe.

While Russia is considering its next step, there are growing concerns that Putin would be ready to give Russian troops the green light to invade Ukraine.

Despite repeatedly insisting that it has no plans to launch a military invasion, Russia has stationed some 100,000 troops at various locations along its border with Ukraine, as well as troops en masse in neighboring Belarus – its ally.

There have been many diplomatic talks in recent weeks between Russian and Western officials aimed at breaking a deadlock over Ukraine and reducing the potential for a military confrontation, but so far it is unclear which side first will flash.

How far Putin will go – and whether he will return – if Russia’s pride and geopolitical interests are at stake (or at least seen in Moscow) is uncertain.

Putin can go back if he wants to

Putin is known for his image of a strong man in Russia, and with the suppression of opposition figures and independent media, the Kremlin is able to control its domestic history when it comes to the president.

As such, analysts say Putin has room to maneuver without losing face, but only if he chooses to.

Maximilian Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC that, “yes, Putin has cultivated a strong male image, but he has enough control over the image and narrative-setting ability that means de-escalation does not become a weakness. seen by the majority of the Russian public. “

Ironically, Hess argued, the more military hardware NATO deployed to Eastern Europe, and the more Western Russia threatened with sanctions, the harder it was for Putin to return.

“Putin can still go back without major domestic repercussions, although the more material that the West is deploying for Eastern Europe in general probably makes it a bit more difficult,” he said.

“Important new sanctions would also make it much tougher, and less desirable from Putin’s point of view, although the West has so far insisted that this will be a response to Russian action, not pre-emptive (the argument is becoming more complex around Nord Stream ).) 2 of course). “

Russian President Vladimir Putin is sitting in his office in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (on video screen) via video call.

Mikhail Metzel | TASS | Getty Images

Hess added that there may be “elite constituencies” within Russia’s military and intellectual right that prefer the war with Ukraine, “but Putin’s system is fairly resistant to policy differences among the elite.”

Not surprisingly, the West’s faith in Russia is very low, given its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and support for pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region in the east of the country, a movement that mistrusts has further affected.

Many analysts believe that a smaller invasion of the Donbas region by Russia is possible – or even likely. This would save both face and destabilize Ukraine, while potentially gaining pro-Russian territory. Hess said that an attempted annexation of the Donbas was his baseline scenario.

“I think Putin can respond to a lack of talks or other ‘negative’ policy outcomes (from the Kremlin’s point of view) by limiting major action to the Donbas without the more dramatic sanctions response the West has provided,” he said. said Hess.

Little appetite for war

Apparently, Russia’s goals are to maintain its sphere of influence over former Soviet states and to halt an eastern expansion of the Western Military Alliance (NATO). Russia says it has no intention of invading Ukraine and simply wants to protect its own security interests.

Putin described the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century and elevated the unity of Russia and Ukraine, emphasizing the shared historical, linguistic and cultural ties between the two countries.

This apparent “closeness” of the two countries may be one reason why the Russian public seems to have a bit of an appetite for war.

“There was no social demand for Putin to play as rough as he does to begin with … there was no question at all of escalation – so any de-escalation would be welcomed by Russians,” said Anton Barbashin, editor-in-chief. of Russian affairs magazine Riddle, told CNBC on Monday.

“It goes without saying that official rhetoric and media can make almost any solution to the conflict a victory for Putin, so it would not substantially challenge his position at home, at least among the Russian public,” he said.

However, Barbashin said there was a schism between a Russian public that is reluctant to watch a war with Ukraine (especially if it could lead to “Russian boys” dying at every confrontation) and the military and conservative elites in Russia.

“For the military and in general the conservative elites of Russia, the retaliation would now make no sense, [as] none of the great goals has been achieved. “They tend to expect Putin to continue to stay strong or even on the ante,” he said.

Hess agreed that, in contrast to the build-up to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, when Russian public sentiment supported an invasion, this time there had been less anti-Ukrainian propaganda.

“I do not think the Russian public is striving for war, nor has the Kremlin’s propaganda aimed at demonizing Ukrainians everywhere to the same extent as in 2014, even though it remains very hostile to the government in Kiev,” Hess said.

‘Step back from the edge’

For now, let the world guess how Putin will respond to U.S. responses to Russia’s demands, hand-delivered to the Kremlin last week by the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. While the exact details of the US response to Russia were not published, it was met with a frosty response in Moscow.

Yet both sides continue to talk, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to speak with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday, while other Western leaders are also trying to persuade Putin to reduce tensions this week. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that he would tell Putin to “step back from the edge” on Ukraine as the two leaders spoke later this week.

Not everyone believes Putin is ready to roll over when it comes to Ukraine, however.

Ian Bremmer, founder and CEO of Eurasia Group, said he believed Putin was preparing the Russian public for an invasion by demonization of Ukraine and the West.

“Putin controls the story at home (especially considering the power of state media), so it’s not really a question of what he can sell,” CNBC reported on Monday. “But this also makes it easier for him to make the decision to escalate – he has convinced the Russians that war is coming and it is all the fault of Ukraine and NATO.”

Bremmer said Putin would lose credibility on a world stage if he returned, especially during certain quarters, such as countries traditionally linked to Russia.

For this reason, he said, “it is important for Putin to have escalatory options that are not just about invading Ukraine.” These could include sending a permanent military presence and nuclear weapons to Belarus, “or even establishing bases in the western hemisphere (Cuba, Venezuela) as the Deputy Foreign Minister has suggested,” Bremmer added.


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