Russia-Ukraine Crisis: Putin Has Backed Down, But He’s Still the Winner

Putin has exposed the differences within NATO and has also focused the debate on the rationale of NATO expansion.

4 min read

The Russians were supposed to have launched an attack on Ukraine on Wednesday, according to U.S. intelligence. They didn’t. On the contrary, there have been reports of Russia withdrawing some tanks from the border.

So, has Putin chickened out? Or has the whole thing been a gigantic bluff?

On Tuesday, even as a panicked New Delhi finally advised its nationals to leave Ukraine, at a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow, Putin said that Russia did not want war and had put forward proposals for negotiations. “But,” he insisted, “the question of Ukraine’s membership of NATO must be resolved now.”

Kremlin spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the US and the UK saying that Tuesday “would go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed, humiliated and destroyed without a single shot being fired.”

Kremlin spokeswoman Maria Zakharova mocked the US and the UK saying that Tuesday “would go down in history as the day Western war propaganda failed, humiliated and destroyed without a single shot being fired.”

Severe Economic Sanctions

In a TV address on Tuesday night, US President Joe Biden welcomed negotiations but insisted that the invasion of Ukraine “remains very much a possibility” and that the US and its allies had not yet verified claims of Russian troops withdrawing. Even while declaring that the US would not send troops to Ukraine, Biden said that it would be a self-inflicted wound and that “the US and our allies and partners will respond decisively”.

The Biden administration has said that while it would not send troops to defend Ukraine against a Russian attack or rescue Americans trapped there in the event of an invasion, it would impose severe economic sanctions. Few doubt that that will happen.

US Missile Systems

On the other hand, Putin said that Russia continued to seek its main aims peacefully – primarily halting the expansion of NATO and getting the alliance to draw down its military presence in Eastern Europe. But he added that the process did not depend only on Russian actions. Of particular concern for the Russians have been US missile systems and their radars set up in Poland and Romania, which the Russians suspect are aimed at them. The Americans claim they are anti-ballistic missile systems to deal with rogue missiles such as those from Iran.

The Russians are yet to formally respond to a set of written proposals sent by the US and NATO last month. They have prepared a 10-page note but have yet to dispatch them and make them public.

It may be recalled that a few days ago, the US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that the Russian attack “could occur any day now”. Tuesday’s remarks seem to suggest a conciliatory approach by Russia, even as Western nations claimed that actually, additional forces were advancing to supplement the 130,000-strong invasion force.

Intentions Are Key

Western intelligence services claim that they have been aware of the detailed invasion plans drawn up by the Russian army. But that is not unusual. Armies draw up plans to cater for various contingencies, and for the Russians, an invasion from the West has always been a major military worry.

It is important to factor in the capabilities the Russians have amassed on the Ukrainian border, but at the end of the day, what needs to be gauged is intentions. And there, it is more than likely that the West does not have any information since it probably resides in the mind of one person – Vladimir Putin.

It should be clear by now that Putin has a lot to gain by keeping a gun on Ukraine’s head. But should it go off, all bets are off and Russia could end up the biggest loser. So far, he has played the diplomatic game shrewdly. US President Joe Biden has already had a virtual summit with Putin in December 2021 and has promised another. A steady stream of European leaders, Chancellor Scholz, and before him President Macron of France, have visited Moscow in recent days and weeks. On Wednesday, the Italian foreign minister was in Kremlin.

Putin Has Wide Support

The Russian leader has got strong support from China’s President Xi Jinping, who said in a joint statement earlier this month that China “opposed the further expansion of NATO”. The two called on the West to “abandon the ideologised approaches of the Cold War” and that the bonds between the two countries had “no limits”.

The Biden administration believes that the Chinese are measuring the US response to the Russian challenge in Ukraine to see how the Americans could react to a similar threat to Taiwan.

Putin’s actions have also clearly divided NATO. Countries that lived under the Soviet Union and are now part of NATO, such as Poland and the Baltic Republics, want Ukraine in. But the big boys of the club, Germany and France, seem less eager, and even the US and the UK, who have raised the danger of invasion, worry about a larger war.


Russians Have Made Their Point

We must keep in mind that the western leaders who have been raising the spectre of warJoe Biden and Boris Johnson – are both embattled at home and gain from talking tough on Russia. Biden has to live down the somewhat unfair charge that he messed up in Afghanistan. Besides, other domestic issues are eroding his presidency. As for Johnson, “partygate” has him fighting for his political life, and it is not surprising that he is taking the most hawkish stand on Ukraine.

If Putin backs down now, he will still remain the winner. He has exposed the differences within NATO and at the same time focused the debate on the rationale of NATO expansion. It has also gotten the West to take him seriously. The Russians have been complaining about NATO expansion eastwards ever since it began, and they were ignored. But with this action, they may have made their point.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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