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Putin could backs down from war with Ukraine without looking weak

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during the plenary session of the Valdai Discussion Club on October 21, 2021 in Sochi, Russia.

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Tensions between Russia and the West remain high after the United States refused to relinquish President Vladimir Putin’s demands, but analysts say it is not too late for him to withdraw from a military confrontation with Ukraine.

The world is awaiting Russia’s response after Washington refused to bow to Moscow’s demands for Ukraine, including that the country never join NATO and that the military alliance’s broadcasts in Eastern Europe be rolled back.

While Russia is considering its next move, there are still growing concerns that Putin may be ready to give Russian troops the green light to invade Ukraine.

Despite repeatedly insisting that it has no plans to launch a military attack, Russia has stationed about 100,000 soldiers in various locations along the border with Ukraine, as well as gathering troops inside neighboring Belarus – its allies – as well.

There have been dozens of diplomatic talks between Russian and Western officials in recent weeks aimed at breaking a stalemate over Ukraine and diminishing the potential for a military confrontation, but so far it is unclear which side will blink first.

How far Putin will go – and whether he will retire – when Russia’s pride and geopolitical interests are at stake (or at least seen to be in Moscow) is uncertain.

Putin can retire if he wants to

Putin is known for his strong male image in Russia, and with the repression of opposition figures and independent media, the Kremlin is able to control the domestic narrative when it comes to the president.

As such, analysts say Putin has room to maneuver without losing face, but only if he chooses to do so.

Maximilian Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC that “yes, Putin has cultivated a strongman image, but he has sufficient control over the image and narrative ability, meaning de-escalation will not be perceived as a weakness of the majority of The Russian public. “

Ironically, Hess argued, the more military hardware that NATO sends to Eastern Europe, and the more the West threatens Russia with sanctions, the harder it is for Putin to go back.

“Putin can still withdraw without major domestic consequences, although the more material the West commits to Eastern Europe in general, the more difficult it will probably be,” he said.

“Major new sanctions would also make it far more difficult and less desirable from Putin’s point of view, although the West has so far stressed that these will be a response to Russian action, not preventive (the argument becomes more complex around Nord Stream). 2 of course). “

Hess added that they could be “elite circles” within Russia’s military and intellectual far-right who prefer war with Ukraine, “but Putin’s system is quite resistant to political disagreements among the elite.”

It is not surprising that the West’s faith in Russia is very low given its annexation of Crimea by Ukraine in 2014 and support for pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region of the eastern part of the country, a move that has further aroused distrust.

Many analysts believe that a minor intervention in the Donbas region from Russia is possible – or even likely. This would both save face and destabilize Ukraine, while potentially gaining pro-Russian territory. Hess said an attempt to annex Donbas was his starting point.

“I think Putin can respond to a collapse in negotiations or other ‘negative’ political results (from the Kremlin’s point of view) by limiting major actions to the Donbas without prompting the more dramatic sanctions that the West has outlined,” Hess said. .

Small appetite for war

Apparently, Russia’s goal is to maintain its sphere of influence over former Soviet states and to halt an eastern expansion of the Western military alliance NATO. Russia says it has no intention of invading Ukraine and simply wants to protect its own security interests.

Putin has described the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century and has praised the unity of Russia and Ukraine, emphasizing the two countries’ common historical, linguistic and cultural ties.

This apparent “proximity” of the two countries may be one reason why there seems to be little appetite for war among the Russian public.

“There was no societal demand for Putin to play as harshly as he does to begin with … there was no demand for escalation at all – so any deescalation would be welcomed by the Russians,” Anton Barbashin, editor-in-chief of Russian affairs journal Riddle, told CNBC on Monday.

“It goes without saying that official rhetoric and media can turn almost any solution to the conflict into a victory for Putin, so it would not challenge his position at home significantly, at least among the Russian public,” he noted.

Barbashin noted, however, that there was a schism between a Russian public that was reluctant to watch a war with Ukraine (especially if it could lead to “Russian boys” dying during any confrontation) and the military and conservative elites in Russia. .

“For the military and Russia’s conservative elites in general, it would not make sense to retire now, none of the major goals have been achieved. They tend to expect Putin to continue to remain firm or even upfront. ,” he said.

Hess agreed that unlike the build-up to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, when the Russian public sentiment supported a burglary, this time there had been less anti-Ukrainian propaganda.

“I do not think the Russian public is luring after war, nor has the Kremlin’s propaganda focused on demonizing Ukrainians to any near the same extent as it did in 2014, although it remains very hostile to the government in Kiev,” noted Hess. .

‘Step back from the brink’

For now, the world is left to guess how Putin will react to the US response to Russia’s demands, handed over to the Kremlin last week by the US ambassador to Moscow. While the exact details of the US response to Russia were not released, it was met with a frost-clear reaction in Moscow.

Nevertheless, both sides continue to talk. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to speak with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, while other Western leaders are also looking at persuading Putin to ease tensions this week. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday he would ask Putin to “step back from the brink” over Ukraine when the two leaders speak later in the week.

However, not everyone thinks Putin is ready to roll over when it comes to Ukraine.

Ian Bremmer, founder and CEO of the Eurasia Group, said he believes Putin is preparing the Russian public for a break-in by demonizing Ukraine and the West.

“Putin controls the narrative at home (especially given the power of state media), so it’s not really a question of what he can sell,” he told CNBC on Monday. “But this also makes it easier for him to make the decision to escalate – he has convinced the Russians that war is on the way, and it’s all Ukraine’s and NATO’s fault.”

Bremmer said Putin would lose credibility on a global stage if he withdraws, especially in certain circles, such as countries traditionally allied with Russia.

For this reason, he said, “it is important for Putin to have escalating opportunities that are not just about invading Ukraine.” These could include sending a permanent military presence and nuclear weapons to Belarus, “or even the establishment of bases in the Western Hemisphere (Cuba, Venezuela) as proposed by the Deputy Foreign Minister,” Bremmer added.

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