Does Putin want a diplomatic solution in Ukraine?

Does Putin want a diplomatic solution in Ukraine?

David Ignatius

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian saber dance continued Monday, with his top aides suggesting the possibility of diplomacy and de-escalation even as Russian troops remained poised for attack on the border of Ukraine. Will he or won’t he invade? Putin loves to keep the world guessing. Biden administration officials, knowing they can’t read Putin’s mind, continue to prepare for both possibilities – a Russian invasion or a round of diplomacy.
Monday’s contradictory signals illustrated the strange shadow play of the Ukraine crisis. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Putin in a televised meeting that diplomatic possibilities were “far from exhausted” and recommended “continuing and intensifying them.” And Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that some of the “exercises” that have sent more than 130,000 Russian troops toward attack positions would be ending soon. Yet US intelligence detected no signs Monday of de-escalation on the ground. Instead, some Russian units continued to move forward. And the Russian news agency TASS quoted the leader of a Russia-backed separatist enclave in eastern Ukraine, saying that the situation was “unstable” and Ukrainian “professional saboteurs” might be preparing to attack. That sounded like a version of the “casus belli” that Russia seeks.
Putin seems convinced that this ever-intensifying war of nerves is helping Russia. But White House officials believe this tactic may be backfiring in two ways: Some Russian officials, uncertain of Putin’s endgame, are questioning his brinkmanship; and Western nations, unsettled by Russian bullying, are rallying around a NATO alliance that seemed depleted just two years ago. The Biden administration may be overly optimistic about a crisis that could still be in its early stages. But officials believe that Putin’s threats have made US allies in Europe and Asia recognize the importance of US leadership and military power, galvanizing partnerships abroad that the Trump administration severely weakened. Officials see Putin’s actions as a wake-up call for the West – and in that sense, a big strategic boost for what had been a sagging United States.
For the Biden administration, the underlying puzzle in the Ukraine crisis is what might be called the “Putin factor.” The Russian leader turns 70 this year. He has the military power to flex his muscles and burnish his legacy by regaining a piece of the old Soviet Union.
Putin operates in such isolation that foreign visitors sometimes aren’t allowed to see him; instead, some are instructed to fly to Moscow and talk by a dedicated landline to the invisible, unapproachable Kremlin leader. US officials believe that some of Putin’s advisers see danger ahead if Putin invades but they aren’t able to get this message to the boss. The sanctions that would follow an assault on Ukraine would make it hard for Russia to sell its energy abroad or to buy the technology it needs to supply its defense industry, let alone the rest of the economy. Russia’s financial reserves are large, but they would quickly be depleted as it sought to bolster its currency and pay its bills. US officials reckon that under sanctions, Russia would be starved of inputs, and China, its only major ally, couldn’t fill the gaps.
President Biden has looked for a pathway for Putin to back away from this crisis. In a phone call Saturday with the Russian leader, Biden is said to have countered Putin’s claims that the West doesn’t address his security concerns by summarizing the ways America is prepared to discuss shared stability for Europe. To Putin’s insistence that the United States ignores Russia’s “red lines,” Biden counseled continued dialogue. The leaders talked about follow-on meetings, but no real channel for discussion has opened yet. An impasse remains on Putin’s fundamental demand for a NATO guarantee that Ukraine won’t ever become a member. A statement by Ukraine’s ambassador to London that Kyiv was ready to give up its aspirations for NATO membership was quickly disavowed Monday by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government in Kyiv. But even on this question, formulas may be found to finesse the difference – stating the widely understood reality that Ukraine won’t join NATO any time soon without formally guaranteeing it.
Putin’s course may already be set for Kyiv. It’s hard to imagine that he has moved a vast army to the Ukraine border twice in the past year, only to retreat. Only Putin knows what he will do next in this self-created crisis. But even he can’t answer the classic question: Tell me how this ends?

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