Vladimir Putin: A nervous world awaits the critical decision of the Russian president

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On Monday, there were signs of a possible last-minute opening at a diplomatic exit ramp at the Kremlin, but the sight of around 130,000 troops on high alert outside Ukraine’s borders has suggested a feint as much as a wink from Putin. And Russia announced on Tuesday that some of its troops would return to their bases after completing recent drills, but stressed that major military drills would continue. It was not immediately clear how many soldiers were involved, after weeks of military build-up. Still, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said there were signs from Moscow that “diplomacy must continue”. He added: “That prompts cautious optimism. But so far we have seen no signs of de-escalation on the ground.”
Tuesday’s developments saw confusion reign – not for the first time – in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, as President Volodymyr Zelensky, a young leader facing the highest stakes, sarcastically dismissed Western projections of a possible Russian invasion on February 16. With the ominous signs elsewhere, couples flocked to Kiev bars and restaurants to celebrate Valentine’s Day despite the looming threat of war.

In Washington, the mood music got even darker. While believing that Putin has not finally made up his mind, several officials have suggested that Russia could act against Ukraine at any time. And a source familiar with the matter predicted an invasion was more likely this week than not – and said Moscow could maintain its current position of strength for some time even if it does not cross the border.

There is a palpable sense that Russia and the West have reached a historic fork in the road. One way is to return to the confrontation and tensions that prevailed for decades during the Cold War. On the other side, there could be a diplomatic gimmick that no key player seems capable of framing given the harsh Russian demands.

A Crisis America Doesn’t Need

At a time when many Americans are dealing with rising prices for basic necessities and gasoline and are exhausted from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine crisis seems distant and esoteric. But a Russian invasion could push energy prices even higher and tip stock markets, which many rely on for their retirement.
The crisis is largely a creation of Putin and his personal, disputed version of history that Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union until it broke up in 1991, should be part of greater Russia. . It also stems from his deep resentment over the end of the Cold War and the admission of the former Warsaw Pact countries, which had aligned themselves with the Soviets, into NATO. In effect, Putin is holding Ukraine hostage with a demand to withdraw these NATO forces from Eastern Europe – a concession that would contradict 70 years of Western doctrine that independent nations choose their own destiny.

If America’s long support for democracy and free-market capitalism means anything in a new era where its power and example are challenged by autocracies like China, it has no alternative but to defend Ukraine.

Waiting for Putin

Essentially, the world was wondering and worrying on Monday what one man – Putin – would do next. There are many reasons why the Russian leader could be stepping back from the brink. An invasion could quickly defeat the Ukrainian forces. But the country is bigger than Germany or France and an insurgency – possibly backed by US arms and funds – could spell disaster for Russia. The sight of killed Russian soldiers could further harm Putin’s waning popularity. But an explosion of nationalism sparked by a war abroad could strengthen his position in a country he rules with an iron fist.

And Putin is not shy about using military power for political purposes, for example against separatists in the Russian Republic of Chechnya and during his annexation of Crimea – Ukraine – in 2014.

But some analysts believe it has already achieved many of its goals, which has the effect of setting back any aspirations Ukraine may have to join NATO in the future. He has put Russia, scorned by many leaders as a waning power, back in the spotlight and hosts a parade of leaders and foreign ministers in Moscow. Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, will visit the far more experienced Putin on Tuesday to test his resolve bolstered by a visit to the White House last week.

The continuing diplomatic dance is cause for hope that war could be avoided. But the fact that Putin has built such a massive force around Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and the Black Sea means that a decision not to invade can be seen as a loss of face. The former KGB officer, who was in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, also feels deeply the humiliation of the Soviet collapse. He seems to believe that NATO, a defensive alliance, is an offensive threat to Russia, a threat that could force it to build a buffer around Russian territory by invading Ukraine – which has borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania – all NATO member countries once behind the Iron Curtain.

The United States will not send troops to Ukraine because it is not a NATO member. But if Putin invades, troops from the United States and Russia, the world’s top two nuclear powers, could soon be close in Europe, with the alarming possibility of miscalculations.

A hope of diplomacy?

A day that saw glimmers of hope and ended with even more chilling warnings from the United States began in Moscow, where Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had what appeared to be a scripted event in front of the camera.

“I have to say there is still a chance,” Lavrov said, referring to the outlook for diplomacy. Putin had previously asked Lavrov if efforts to silence Russia were “just an attempt to drag us into an endless process of negotiation that has no logical solution.” His comment was ironic as many in the West believe that is exactly Putin’s game and the talks are just a bluff until the time is right to move on to Ukraine. Still, the apparition could signal that Putin is finally seeking a diplomatic exit, although NATO would never agree to his demands to leave Eastern Europe.

“Signals suggest today that they may be considering some last-minute diplomatic maneuvers,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told CNN’s Becky Anderson in an interview. “I think as Putin gets closer to pulling the trigger here, he understands the costs better.” Washington and its allies have threatened the most crippling sanctions ever imposed on the Russian economy should Putin invade.

Michael Bociurkiw, the former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, also expressed tempered hope.

“It’s hard to know what to believe coming out of Mr. Lavrov’s mouth,” Bociurkiw said on “CNN Newsroom,” but added that the broadcast of his meeting with Putin on Russian state television was significant.

“To me, that indicated that they were ready to wait for a possible military solution to their Ukrainian problem. Other foreign ministers will come later in the week. … So that was their way of saying, ‘We are open to more dialogue. “

Dire warnings from Washington

Still, if US sources are to be believed, the photo shoot in Moscow was just for show.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Putin “continues to add” new land, sea and air forces to his “options menu”. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States had closed its embassy in Kyiv “due to the dramatic acceleration in the build-up of Russian forces”. A source familiar with the matter told CNN’s Natasha Bertrand that a Russian attack on Ukraine is more likely this week than not, and if it doesn’t happen in time, that doesn’t mean the threat is over. .

Senators emerging from a briefing with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan were equally pessimistic. “It’s a very dangerous situation,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters. The chairman of the committee, Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, added: “The forces that the Russians have assembled, they could launch at any time. Nothing I heard today deterred me. “

The grim American rhetoric continued a trend of remarkably candid American and Western commentary on the situation based on declassified information, apparently designed both to increase pressure on Putin and to frustrate any attempt by Moscow to fake an incident as a ruse to justify an invasion.

But from the start, there has been a rift between Washington and Kiev over the possibility of an invasion. Zelensky sent shockwaves all the way to the United States on Monday when he named Feb. 16 a day of national unity, while referencing foreign fears of invasion. But when CNN asked Mykhailo Podoliak, a presidential adviser, how to take his remarks, he replied: “Of course, ironically.” It seems like a strange time for sarcasm. But Zelensky is a former comedic actor and might feel justified in dark humor given the circumstances.

This story has been updated with additional developments and reactions.

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