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Has Putin blinked?

Denis Balibouse/Pool Photo via AP

If so, it’s not entirely clear why. The US submitted a diplomatic proposal two days ago that produced immediate Russian scoffing, followed by more troop movements. NATO and the European Union still appear split on imposing energy-related sanctions on Moscow, which are the only sanctions that will have any impact on Vladimir Putin’s standing.

However, Sergei Lavrov’s tone has suddenly changed, Reuters reports. Instead of saber-rattling, the foreign minister sounds more amenable to a diplomatic solution:

Russia on Friday sent its strongest signal so far that it is willing to engage with U.S. security proposals and reiterated that it does not want war over Ukraine.

“If it depends on Russia, then there will be no war. We don’t want wars. But we also won’t allow our interests to be rudely trampled, to be ignored,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian radio stations in an interview. …

Lavrov said the West was ignoring Russia’s interests but there was at least “something” in written responses submitted by the United States and NATO on Wednesday to Russia’s proposals.

While the responses have not been made public, both have stated they are willing to engage with Moscow on arms control and confidence-building measures. They have ruled out acceding to other demands, including that Ukraine must never be allowed to join NATO.

Even that came with a bit of gamesmanship. This sounds like a Russian ploy to put some daylight between the US and NATO, although in the wrong direction:

Lavrov said he expected to meet U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken again in the next couple of weeks.

He said, without giving details, that the U.S. counter-proposals were better than NATO’s. Russia was studying them and Putin would decide how to respond.

Normally, Russia would try to pry Europe away from the US, not the other way around. Either Putin has decided he’d rather deal with Biden to get what he wants, or … the US proposal really was more helpful to Putin. Which is worse? It’s hard to tell.

However, that strategy likely won’t come to much. The New York Times reports that Biden has managed to get a stronger consensus in recent days to confront Putin economically, if not militarily:

When President Biden held a video call with European leaders about Ukraine this week, it had all the urgency of a Cold War-era crisis, replete with the specter of Russian tanks and troops menacing Eastern Europe. But Mr. Biden expanded the seats on his war council, adding Poland, Italy and the European Union to the familiar lineup of Britain, France and Germany.

The effort to be inclusive was no accident: After complaints from Europeans that they were blindsided by the swift American withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, and that France was frozen out of a new defense alliance with Australia, Mr. Biden has gone out of his way to involve allies in every step of this crisis.

For the Biden administration, it amounts to a much-needed diplomatic reset. The United States, European officials say, has acted with energy and some dexterity in orchestrating the response to Russia’s threatening moves. Since mid-November, it has conducted at least 180 senior-level meetings or other contacts with European officials. Some marvel at having their American counterparts on speed dial.

Despite being dragged down at home by domestic problems and viewed as a transitional figure in some skeptical European capitals, the president has emerged as the leader of the West’s effort to confront the threats from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. The administration’s emphasis on unity, American officials say, is largely intended to frustrate Mr. Putin’s desire to use the crisis to fracture NATO.

This gets to the overall point of the Ukraine crisis, it appears. After Biden botched the Afghanistan withdrawal and left allies behind — and not just Afghan allies — Putin must have figured the time was ripe to split the West and secure his frontiers. Having roped Germany into energy dependence on Moscow and with Biden unilaterally blowing up NATO’s joint project in Afghanistan, one can see why Putin pressed the issue. His threat initially appeared to work too, as Germany and other EU states expressed reluctance to coalesce around any effective response.

Now that Biden has belatedly managed to get the band back together — we hope — Putin might now want to de-escalate. Lavrov’s change of tone sounds like an attempt to get as much out of the confrontation as Putin can get without the costs of war. In fact, he might be looking for an escape from his own trap, Yulia Latynina writes at the NYT, having his bluff effectively called by sudden NATO/EU unity on Ukraine:

While Mr. Putin undoubtedly regards Ukraine as little more than a Russian province, as he argued in a lengthy pseudo-historical treatise in July, it’s far from clear his aim was war. Outright conflict — as opposed to sudden swoops, covert operations or hybrid warfare — isn’t really Mr. Putin’s style. It’s probable that the troop buildup in November was an attempt to force the West to relinquish any claims over Ukraine. That would be a great P.R. victory at minimal cost.

But the West called his bluff. In the past week especially, the United States and NATO have taken a markedly sharper tone when discussing Russia — and have, more important, sent military hardware across Eastern Europe and put troops on standby. The message is clear: If Russia won’t de-escalate, then neither will the West.

Instead of trapping the United States, Mr. Putin has trapped himself. Caught between armed conflict and a humiliating retreat, he is now seeing his room for maneuver dwindling to nothing. He could invade and risk defeat, or he could pull back and have nothing to show for his brinkmanship. What happens next is unknown. But one thing is clear: Mr. Putin’s gamble has failed.

So what can Putin still win? Not much more than face-saving cover, Latynina figures:

His options are limited. He can demand the West stop its military supplies. He might vent his frustrations on the opposition, all the while seeking to portray Russia as victim of the nefarious West. Or he could test the waters with a deniable provocation undertaken by supposedly private Russian citizens, those Mr. Putin once called “coal miners and tractor drivers.” That may be a small way to save face, but it could easily spill out of control. The risk of outright war is enormous.

There is, perhaps, one certainty to hold on to: Mr. Putin will never start a war he’s likely to lose.

Well, that’s perhaps going a bit far. Putin likely wouldn’t outright lose a war in Ukraine; the Russian military has become much better equipped and effectively modernized, and the proximity to Ukraine provides easy lines of communication. Russian air and sea power would be overwhelming in such a conflict. Even though Ukraine has also upgraded its military and would fight on its own ground, it’s overmatched and outgunned.

What Putin would get is a bloody mess, with lots of casualties on both sides and a loss of capital Putin badly needs to remain in power. And for what? Putin already controls the Donbas and Crimea, while the rest of Ukraine would be a restive and expensive thorn in his side for however long Putin occupied it. It wouldn’t necessarily be another Afghanistan for Russia, but it wouldn’t necessarily be all that far off either.

If Putin’s blinking, it’s because he likely already knew this. This whole exercise might have been Putin’s bluff to see whether he could split the West after our own debacle in Afghanistan rather than split Ukraine … which he accomplished in 2014 already. That strategy failed, this time. Don’t expect this to be the last time Putin tries it, even if he does back down this time.