War Stories

Is the Ukraine Crisis Winding Down?

Putin’s latest comments suggest it might be. But we’re not out of the cold, Russian woods yet.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor following their meeting over Ukraine security at the Kremlin, in Moscow, on February 15, 2022. - The Kremlin, earlier on February 15, 2022, confirmed a pullback of some Russian forces from Ukraine's borders but said the move was planned and stressed Russia would continue to move troops across the country as it saw fit. (Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev / Sputnik / AFP) (Photo by MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with German Chancellor following their meeting over Ukraine security at the Kremlin, in Moscow, on February 15, 2022. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Getty Images

Is the Ukrainian war scare over? By several measures, it seems so.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that he’s ready to discuss “confidence-building measures” on arms control, mutual inspections of military exercises, and other areas of East-West relations—this, one day after his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov said the possibilities for diplomacy over the Ukraine crisis were “far from exhausted.”

Putin also announced that Russia has started withdrawing some of the tanks and soldiers it has sent to the Ukrainian border in recent weeks, saying that they are returning to their bases, and that the military exercises, which he claims motivated the deployments, will be finished on Sunday.

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Finally, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly mused that his quest for membership in NATO might be “a dream” that he should stop pursuing for now.

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Each of these could be an important sign that the crisis is de-escalating. The troop movements have been the cause of Western warnings of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. Biden proposed those “confidence-building measures” as a way to defuse  the crisis. Finally, Putin’s main demand in this confrontation has been a guarantee that Ukraine never join NATO, and, while Biden has refused to go that far, Zelensky’s hint that he’ll drop his active push for membership—combined with many statements, by Biden and others, that, as a practical matter, Ukraine won’t be let into the western military alliance any time soon—may sate Putin’s anxieties over losing control of what he sees as a vital security buffer on Russia’s western border.

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However, in a televised speech Tuesday afternoon, Biden said there is no evidence as yet that Russian troops actually are moving away from the Ukrainian border—confirming earlier skepticism by NATO officials, who said that, just days ago, some troops were continuing to move toward the border. For that reason, Biden cautioned, “invasion remains distinctly possible.”

Also on Tuesday, Ukraine asked NATO for emergency items including medical supplies, field camps, bulldozers, and radiation and chemical reconnaissance gear.

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So who knows?

As has been the case from the start of this crisis, the question of war or peace depends, in large part, on the state of Putin’s mind. He seems to have gone into this crisis expecting that the thrust of 100,000 Russian troops, tanks, and warships, surrounding Ukraine on all sides, would trigger a splintered reaction from Kyiv’s Western allies, thus forcing an abandoned Zelensky to succumb to Putin’s pressure and stop his effort to join the Western camp.

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However, as it turned out, the Biden administration mounted an impressive display of diplomatic countermoves, a deft mix of “sticks and carrots,” while keeping the NATO allies—a disparate, sometimes-quarrelsome herd of 30 nations—surprisingly united in resisting Putin’s efforts to sow disunity. (Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has been the sole exception, predictably; German’s new chancellor, Olaf Shultze, seemed a holdout at first, but has since hewed the line.)

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Putin’s broad foreign-policy aim, in the last several years, has been to exploit fissures within the Western alliance and drive wedges between its European members and their American protector—in short, to strengthen Russia by weakening those who might thwart Putin’s ambitions.

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In that sense, his pressure campaign on Ukraine has been a disaster; it has unified the alliance and strengthened America’s leadership status more than any other event since the end of the Cold War.

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Putin’s pressure campaign has also loosened, rather than tightened, his hold on Ukraine, which he regards as an extension of Russia and a vital preserve for Russia’s “sphere of influence” on its western border. (He once told President George W. Bush, “Ukraine is not a country.”) By many accounts, his troop movements have sparked a rise in Ukrainian nationalism, anti-Russia sentiment, and good feelings toward the West, even in some cities that had long been firmly in Moscow’s orbit.

And so it could well be that Putin is looking for a face-saving way out of this confrontation, and—in Biden’s offer of confidence-building measures, as well as Zelensky’s move toward laying off his talk of joining NATO—he may have found its main elements. (There is nothing wrong with letting an adversary save face, by the way; it can be dangerous to poke a cornered tyrant who still has the physical ability to lash out with great force.)

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Persuading Zelensky to quiet his NATO ambitions is key. Putin’s anxieties over the possibility that Ukraine might join the West are genuine and deep. Presidents George H.W. Bush and especially Bill Clinton mounted a campaign to “enlarge” NATO—incorporating almost all of the countries that once belonged to the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact—during the early years of the post-Cold War age, when Russia was flat on its back, economically and militarily. Putin was a KGB agent in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down and Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister when most of the Soviet empire’s former subjects eagerly sought NATO’s security blanket. This fueled his resentment, and since Russia has recovered at least some of its economic and military strength, he is aiming to recover some of Russia’s empire as well—or at least ensure more of it doesn’t slip away.

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Ukraine is vital to that project. Even the Clinton administration’s most ardent enthusiasts for NATO enlargement stopped short when it came to Ukraine, realizing its membership in NATO might humiliate Moscow—and provoke a future Kremlin leader—too much.

The biggest obstacle to declaring an end to this crisis may be that the Ukraine-in-NATO question is not yet settled. On Sunday, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Vadym Prystako, said that Ukraine might contemplate not joining NATO if doing so would avert a Russian invasion.

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The ambassador’s comment sparked enormous controversy back home, spurring Zelensky’s spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, to tweet on Monday that the remark “was taken out of context,” adding, “Ukraine’s position remains unchanged. The goal of NATO membership is enshrined in the Constitution of Ukraine and no decision can contradict it. The matter of security guarantees for Ukraine is urgent.”

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However, around the same time, Zelensky himself suggested that his ambassador’s comments reflected his own thinking. He appeared at a joint press conference in Kyiv with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who said that Ukraine’s membership in NATO was, for all practical terms, off the table—and Zelensky didn’t disagree. Maybe the prospect of joining the Western military alliance was “like a dream,” the Ukrainian president mused, adding, “How much should Ukraine go on that path? Who will support us?” He acknowledged the stark reality that, with Russian troops surrounding his country, the U.S. and its allies have pledged support for Ukraine but have expressly said they would not send troops, as they would be required to do if Ukraine were a member of NATO.

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The question is whether Putin is satisfied with the fact that Ukraine will not join NATO anytime soon, or whether he still requires, as he has said in the past, a legal document that pledges Ukraine will never join.

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At a press conference with Scholz on Tuesday, Putin seemed unrelenting. “They say [Ukrainian membership] won’t happen tomorrow. But when? The day after tomorrow?… So we want to resolve this issue now,” he said. “By peaceful means,” he added. “We proceed from this and very much hope that our concerns will be heard and taken seriously by our partners.”

But if they don’t, Putin said he is ready to pursue his security interests, as he sees them, through other means.

Is this bluster? Is Putin holding out for a few more concessions? If so, what precisely will be enough to pull back the troops and sit down at the negotiating table? It’s not implausible that back-channel talks are going on between Putin and some U.S. emissary, as the rest of the world waits in suspense. If not, then we’re all flying a bit blind. As The Economist summed up the situation on Tuesday, “Russia offers an olive branch, but still wields the sword.”

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