MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian leader Vladimir Putin has secured some wins in his confrontation with the West over Ukraine, but it’s too early to discern an end to a crisis that could yet morph into a new Cold War even if conflict is averted, Kremlin watchers said.
The United States has rubbished Moscow’s assertion it was partially pulling back troops massed near Ukraine, saying that Russia was instead still building them up and remained positioned for an imminent invasion if it chose.
Moscow, which denies that, accuses the West of ignoring its key security demands, but top diplomat Sergei Lavrov told Putin on Monday to allow more time for diplomacy even as Putin said he did not want to be dragged into tortuous negotiations.
For Putin, the procession of foreign dignitaries flying in for talks, including France’s president, Germany’s chancellor and two British ministers is already a win, pushing Moscow’s security worries to the top of the world agenda.
“His biggest achievement is that he’s got the West’s attention,” said Andrey Kortunov, head of RIAC, a think-tank close to Russia’s foreign ministry. “At least they are now fully aware of Russia’s position and narrative… I think it’s a major accomplishment and let’s see what happens next and whether he can claim anything on top of that.”
The West has dismissed as outlandish many of Moscow’s security demands, which include a proposal for NATO to pull back its infrastructure to 1997 lines, to end the alliance’s expansion and to declare a veto on Ukraine joining.
But Washington has offered talks on some matters.
U.S. President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that concrete ideas were on the table to “establish a security environment in Europe” involving new measures on arms control, transparency and strategic stability.
“Of course this is not exactly what Russia wanted, but I think realistically speaking this is what Russia could have expected to get,” Kortunov said.
SANCTIONS, NATO UNITY
To be sure, Russia’s build-up near Ukraine – which Biden estimated at more than 150,000 troops on Tuesday – has entailed reputational costs, galvanised NATO, and seen Ukraine receive a flood of military aid.
Russian stocks and the rouble have been battered as the West has threatened major sanctions. [RU/RUB]
Worried by Russian moves, NATO has also deployed additional troops to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and is drawing up plans for new combat units in central and southeastern Europe.
“As so often, their military intimidation has proven to be counterproductive and has only focused Western minds on the necessity to defend Europe against Russia. It has strengthened NATO unity,” said Keir Giles, an associate fellow at Chatham House.
Tensions surged again on Thursday after Russian-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces traded accusations of firing shells across the ceasefire line in eastern Ukraine. Britain accused Russia of attempting to fabricate a pretext to invade.
This week is seen as a decisive moment that could take the crisis into a new phase.
Huge military exercises in Belarus, to Ukraine’s north, are due to end on Sunday. Moscow continued to announce troop withdrawals from annexed Crimea on Thursday and the Kremlin rebuffed the West’s scepticism, saying the process took time.
“If we actually see the beginning of a troop withdrawal, then we’ll be able to say this phase of the crisis is over. It’s too early to relax,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based Penta think-tank.
Sir John Sawers, the former head of Britain’s MI6 intelligence service, told the BBC on Wednesday that the crisis could be at a turning point, though he said Putin still had various military options in Ukraine.
“I think in some ways, President Putin will think he’s ahead on points on this,” Sawers said. He listed Moscow’s promotion of its security concerns, the intimidation of Ukraine and the highlighting of Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas.
Putin this week gained a new tool to pressure Ukraine over the conflict in its east after Russian lawmakers asked him to recognise the independence of the Russian-backed breakaway regions there, analysts said.
Recognising those self-proclaimed republics would derail the peace process based around the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements to end the fighting.
A NEW COLD WAR?
Fesenko said that, even if Russia did ease the crisis by pulling back troops now, Moscow could easily move them back again rapidly as it did last spring.
He said that could entail the scenario of a kind of new Cold War opening up in which the tension and political confrontation is consolidated and becomes more constant.
“I think this is the most likely because Putin can’t retreat and he can’t step back out of principle,” he said.
“The numbers could fluctuate, but troops would remain and the political confrontation remain. This of course will be a little different to what we had during the Soviet Union, but nevertheless this confrontation will be here for a fairly long time.”
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn and Alex Richardson)