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I'll Believe Putin is "De-Escalating" in Ukraine When I See It

And I doubt he even can

Kommersant Photo/Kommersant via Getty Images

Today, Vladimir Putin took the world by surprise again, asking pro-Russian separatists to “hold off” on their referendum, planned for May 11, and said he was pulling Russian troops back from the Ukrainian border. But don’t turn off your “Ukraine” Google alert just yet; this saga isn’t over, and it hasn’t gotten any less complicated.

First of all, according to U.S. officials, Russia hasn’t moved anything just yet.

Nor, second of all, has he really demanded anything. He asked, and it’s not clear that the field commanders in eastern Ukraine will accede to his request, which will only bolster Putin’s case that he doesn’t control these guys. Though, for their part, if the separatists really want to be part of Russia, can they really ignore Putin’s request to hold off?

Can the Russian position even win? Putin isn’t really hiding a very good reason for postponing the referendum. He asked “representatives of southeast Ukraine and supporters of federalization to hold off the referendum scheduled for May 11, in order to give this dialogue the conditions it needs to have a chance.” (emphasis mine) Because eastern and southern Ukraine is not Crimea, and it is not at all clear that, were a referendum held in just four days, the results would come out in Russia’s favor. The unpopularity of the new government in Kiev here has not translated to favoring he idea of independence or joining up with Russia. Polls put the number at just 30 percent of people in the region supporting annexation. To get the right result, Russia would have to pull off a stupendous amount of fraud, thereby risking a massive backlash—and further violence—in these regions.

Which brings us to Odessa: The deadly, unexpected violence there over the weekend seems to have been a terrifying turning point. Putin did such a good job destabilizing Ukraine that the country is now slipping toward civil war as different Ukrainian groups fight each other, like they did in the streets of Odessa. Putin likely didn’t count on this, and it’s even likelier that the last thing he wants next door is a civil war. “If you get civil war there, it’s destabilizing to neighboring Russian regions, too,” says Masha Lipman, a political analyst with Moscow’s Carnegie Center.

That said, the events in Odessa may be a bellwether signifying that facts on the ground have taken on a momentum of their own, one that even Putin can’t harness, let alone control.

Crimea is also still a factor. It’s a raw graft on the Russian body politic and it needs to be dealt with and incorporated into the country. The Kremlin also would like to see some kind of recognition of the peninsula’s new status—tacitly, de facto, whatever. This is going to be hard to do if Ukraine explodes and the West continues to blame Russia for making that happen.

Russia’s internal problems are also a problem. The Russian economy isn't doing too hot, and some estimates (like the IMF’s) already have it in a recession. Recent sanctions aren’t helping either. Meanwhile, says political consultant and one-time Putin advisor Gleb Pavlovsky, “all you see on TV is Ukraine. It’s like Russia doesn’t exist.” He also adds that there are age-old divisions reemerging among the Kremlin elite, between the sidelined liberals and the hyper-patriotic hawks, who, in Pavlovsky’s words, will be saying, “We suffered sanctions because of Putin, but what’s the result? Where’s the Donbas?”

Speaking of the hawks, the Russian machine is notoriously hard to turn off. Putin may be trying to return and maintain maximal room to maneuver, but, as political analyst Mikhail Vinogradov noted, the rhetoric that his state has been fomenting has been leaving him with less and less. “There is now an obvious contradiction between Moscow’s ability to maneuver and the message that state television has been broadcasting for the last few weeks,” he told one Russian paper. That message? “That there’s no room to maneuver and that [Putin] has to push it to the very end.”

This may be Putin’s way of walking an increasingly uncontrollable situation back from the edge, but there is a very real—and very likely—possibility that this is Putin’s bluff. “It’s a feint by Putin,” says Alexander Kliment, director of Eurasia policy at the Eurasia Group. “It wrong-foots the west on further sanctions, but all the key points of friction are still there, as are all of Putin's tools for influencing the situation in the way he wants to.” It's a pretty fair point, given that Putin is prone to, well, lying. 

So whether this is a real or lasting de-escalation on Russia’s part—or that it can deescalate the situation at all after all it’s done in the last weeks—well, I’ll believe it when I see it.