Did Vladimir Putin just blink?

Has the Russian president decided to shut the Ukraine confrontation down?

Gwynne Dyer

Did he just blink? I think he did.

Only one week ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said that in the present circumstances he regarded the presidential election scheduled by the Ukrainian government in Kiev for 25 May as “absurd”. Last Wednesday, however, Putin conceded that the election could be “a move in the right direction.”

Putin also said that he was going to pull back the 40,000 Russian troops who have been doing “military exercises” close to Ukraine’s eastern border. He even asked the heavily armed pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, who have seized government buildings in a dozen eastern cities, to postpone the referendum on independence or unification with Russia that they had scheduled for this Sunday.

So a lot of people hope that he has decided to call off the confrontation. Maybe he has, but you have to read the fine print.

What Putin actually said about the presidential elections that the government in Kiev has called for the 25th was less than enthusiastic: “I would like to stress that… while they are a move in the right direction, [they] will not decide anything if all the citizens of Ukraine fail to understand how their rights are protected after the elections are held.”

Moreover, a “senior source” close to President Putin subsequently said that he would support the Ukrainian presidential elections on 25 May IF talks started between the government in Kiev and the armed separatists in the east, and IF Kiev stopped trying to take the towns they control back by force. That leaves him room to welsh on his promise.

As for Putin’s request that the separatists call off their referendum on independence, they rejected it the next day. Russian agents have been heavily involved in orchestrating the seizure of government buildings in eastern Ukraine from the start, so it’s hard to believe that he couldn’t get the separatists to cancel the referendum if he really tried. And though he has promised to pull his troops back from Ukraine’s border, they have not actually begun to move yet.

So you have to wonder whether he is really going to call off the confrontation. Maybe he is just trying to stave off further Western sanctions while his plans to destabilise the government in Kiev, disrupt the presidential elections, and maybe even take over eastern Ukraine continue to unfold.

Nobody can read Putin’s mind, but there is reason to suppose that his change of tone might be genuine, because he is saying he will do exactly what level-headed strategic advisers in his entourage would be urging him to do. If this confrontation continues down the road it has been travelling recently, it will hurt Russian interests, and even his own political interests, a lot.

Putin has little to gain from a local victory in Ukraine. Seizing the country’s eastern provinces would simply land Moscow with the permanent job of spending a great deal of money to support an industrial museum. And taking control of all of Ukraine might lead to a long counter-insurgency war against Ukrainian nationalists.

The external costs of “victory” would be even higher. Already NATO is moving troops into the Eastern European members of the alliance to reassure the local populations, who live in permanent fear of another Russian take-over. (Previously it did not station foreign troops in those countries, in order not to frighten the Russians.) Even the Swedes and the Finns, who are neutrals, are discussing closer cooperation in defence matters.

The next round of Western sanctions will really hurt the Russian economy, and that would undermine Putin’s political popularity at home. And if it really turns into a new Cold War, Russia would lose far faster than it did last time. The Russian Federation has only half the population of the old Soviet Union, and considerably less than half the industrial resources and technological prowess of that former superpower.

It would make sense for Putin to end this confrontation: he has already taken Crimea, and that is victory enough. Russian-speakers are not at risk in Ukraine, and never have been. Ukraine is not going to join NATO or the European Union no matter who wins the elections on 25 May. Neither organisation would let them in. But he can’t just throw his cards on the table and walk away: he has to save face.

That may be enough to explain why his statements and actions this week have been shrouded in a good deal of ambiguity. Alternatively, he may just not be listening to his advisers, or they may be too intimidated to tell him what they really think, in which case he hasn’t really changed course and all this talk is a ploy to gain time.

But Putin has been running Russia for fourteen years, and in all that time he has not made a major strategic error. He is not stupid, and he has shown no signs of being delusional. My guess is that he has decided to shut the confrontation down.

Just Posted

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Over 5K jabbed at Interior Health mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinics

The clinics have made stops in more than 40 communities since launching last week

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interior Health COVID-19 cases falling slower than the rest of B.C.

More than a third of provincial cases announced Thursday came from the Interior

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

A tent housing a mobile vaccination clinic. (Interior Health/Contributed)
Second dose vaccinations accelerating throughout region: Interior Health

To date, more than 675,000 doses have been administered throughout the region

1914
It happened this week in 1914

June 13 - 19: Compiled by Dave Humphrey from the archived newspapers… Continue reading

Cranbrook Arts has opened the doors of their  new gallery space to the public with their inaugural exhibit, Kootenay’s Best.
‘Kootenay’s Best’ opens Cranbrook Arts’ new gallery

This exhibit has been in the works for the past several months and features the work of more than 50 emerging and established artists from across the Kootenays

FILE – Most lanes remain closed at the Peace Arch border crossing into the U.S. from Canada, where the shared border has been closed for nonessential travel in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Thursday, May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. The restrictions at the border took effect March 21, while allowing trade and other travel deemed essential to continue. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Feds to issue update on border measures for fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents

Border with U.S. to remain closed to most until at least July 21

A portion of the George Road wildfire burns near Lytton, B.C. in this Friday, June 18, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, BC Wildfire Service *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Blaze near Lytton spread across steep terrain, says BC Wildfire Service

Fire began Wednesday and is suspected to be human-caused, but remains under investigation

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Fort St. John man arrested after allegedly inviting sexual touching from children

Two children reported the incident to a trusted adult right away

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

Most Read