Putin's next move on Ukraine is a mystery. Just the way he likes it

Putin's brinkmanship of recent months is a case study in his ability to use tension and unpredictability to seek high returns with what may seem like a weak geopolitical hand

By Anton Troianovski
Published: Jan 12, 2022

President Vladimir Putin of Russia during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan on Friday, June 28, 2019. The contradictory, sometimes menacing messages from the Kremlin are indicative of the Russian leader’s desire to keep his rivals on edge. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

GENEVA — President Vladimir Putin of Russia has spent months massing close to 100,000 troops near the Ukraine border. But Moscow says it has no intention of invading.

What is Russia’s next move? No one knows, except perhaps Putin. And that is by design.

The mystery surrounding the Russian leader’s intentions was thick as fog again this week, after a top Russian diplomat delivered a series of seemingly contradictory messages upon emerging from two days of high-stakes security talks with the United States.

Moments after declaring the talks “deep’’ and “concrete,’’ Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that failure to meet Russia’s demands could put the “security of the whole European continent” at risk.

The gyrating, often ominous positions helped stump even some of those who make a living from decoding Putin’s intentions.

“The expert opinion that I can authoritatively declare is: Who the heck knows?” Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent Russian foreign policy analyst who heads a council that advises the Kremlin, said in a telephone interview.

Analysts said that not even members of Putin’s inner circle — let alone Ryabkov, who led Russia’s delegation at this week’s Geneva talks — were likely to know how seriously Putin is contemplating full-scale war with Ukraine. Nor would they know what U.S. concessions he is prepared to accept in order to defuse the crisis.

Instead, Putin is likely not even to have made a decision, according to Russian analysts as well as U.S. officials. And he is relishing keeping the West on edge.

“What matters is results,” Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters Tuesday, maintaining the suspense. “For now, there is nothing to say about any results.”

The talks will continue Wednesday, when Russian officials will meet representatives of the United States and its NATO allies in Brussels, and Thursday at a gathering of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a 57-nation group that includes Ukraine as well as Russia and the United States.

After that, Peskov said, Russia would decide “whether it makes sense” to move forward with diplomacy.

Putin’s brinkmanship of recent months is a case study in his ability to use tension and unpredictability to seek high returns with what may seem like a weak geopolitical hand. Struggling with a stagnant economy and tattered alliances, Russia is also dealing with volatile situations on at least four borders — with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the Southern Caucasus.

For years, Putin has fumed over NATO’s expansion eastward and U.S. support for pro-Western sentiment in Ukraine; now, by creating a new security crisis that threatens to complicate President Joe Biden’s agenda, he has succeeded in getting the issue to the forefront in Washington.

“For the first time in 30 years, the United States has agreed to discuss issues that it was impossible to discuss even a year ago,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political analysis firm R.Politik.

Now that the Russian president has Americans at the negotiating table, he is pursuing another classic Putin strategy: putting so many potential moves on the playing field — pointing in so many different directions — that he leaves people guessing, allowing him to choose the tactics that best suit him as events evolve.

Ryabkov, for instance, told reporters that he was making no ultimatums and foresaw no “deal breaker.’’ But he added that it was “absolutely mandatory” that the United States guarantee that Ukraine would never join NATO.

He said Russia was imposing no specific timeline but that it needed a “fast response” to its demands. And while he said there was “no reason to fear an escalation scenario” in Ukraine, he warned that the West still failed to grasp how dangerous it would be to rebuff Russia’s demands.

The contradictory messaging continued Tuesday when Peskov countered any positive assessments Ryabkov might have offered the day before. “For now, we do not see any substantive reason for optimism,” he said in his daily conference call with reporters.

The problem with Putin’s approach is that it gives his diplomats next to no flexibility to negotiate on Russia’s behalf and sometimes leaves them struggling to maintain a coherent message. Stanovaya warned that even if diplomats did reach some kind of deal, hawks in Moscow who have more of Putin’s ear could soon help derail it.

Analysts noted that Ryabkov, from the diplomatic side, most likely did not even know what military options the Kremlin was considering. The virus-free cocoon Putin has tried to establish around himself has meant that even confidants are forced to spend days in quarantine before being allowed into the same room with him, further reducing his connections with the outside world.

“No one knows with 100% certainty whether Putin is ready for war, or whether this is a bluff or not,” Stanovaya said.

While Putin may have succeeded in getting the U.S. to agree to talk — even though Moscow’s demands appeared to be nonstarters — Stanovaya and others warned that at this point, talks alone are not enough for him.

As best analysts can tell, it is the demand that NATO offer some kind of formal assurances not to expand eastward and to cease military cooperation with Ukraine that is now most important for Putin. The U.S. offer in Monday’s discussions to negotiate missile placement and military exercises in Europe is also of interest to Russia, but Ryabkov indicated that these issues are a lower priority.

NATO has repeatedly ruled out the idea that it would allow any other country to veto who can and cannot be in the alliance, creating what appears to be an impasse. Still, Lukyanov said the fact that the talks did not immediately collapse means that both sides may see some path — currently invisible to the outside world — to achieve a workable result.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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