As the threat of an invasion of Ukraine again appeared to slip into a holding pattern, Western leaders and diplomats were left scrambling Tuesday to interpret conflicting signals coming out of Moscow.
Famously described by Britain’s wartime prime minister Winston Churchill as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” Russia put its willingness to play by its own rules on full display with a token withdrawal of some troops exercising in Crimea and the offer of renewed security dialogue with the West.
Russia made those gestures after several days of delivering sharp anti-Western rhetoric — and after allied intelligence sources warned again that an invasion could happen as early as today.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that — notwithstanding the messages coming from the Kremlin — Russia still has more than 100,000 combat-ready forces poised on Ukraine’s border.
“There are signs from Moscow that diplomacy should continue. This gives grounds for cautious optimism,” Stoltenberg said ahead of a meeting of the Western alliance’s defence ministers.
“But so far, we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground.”
Over the past several months, NATO has seen Russia move troops and equipment into the region, move them out while leaving their equipment behind — then move them back in just as quickly.
“So the movement of forces, the movement of Russian capabilities doesn’t represent real de-escalation, but we will monitor, we will follow what they are doing,” Stoltenberg said.
Following the movements of the Russian military may be the easiest part of figuring out where this crisis goes next.
President of Finland Sauli Niinisto recently sat for an interview with the New York Times about his enduring dialogue with Vladimir Putin. He told the Times he noted a change in the Russian president’s “state of mind, decisiveness” during a recent long conversation. He said he believed Putin felt he had to seize on “the momentum he has now.”
Haunted by the Soviet Union’s fall
That sort of nuance is missing from the political and diplomatic calculus of the West, said veteran Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson.
“It comes down to Putin because he has a view of history that sees the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century being the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” said Robertson, a vice-president at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“And I think, before he leaves, he’s determined to restore as much of that as he can. He’s in his late 60s now and I think he’s determined to do it before he leaves — bring Ukraine back into Russia by force, if necessary, preferably by bluff.”
WATCH | In Russia-Ukraine crisis, the threat of an invasion remains high:
Russia’s claims of troop withdrawal are unverified, U.S. says
Russia’s parliament, the Duma, attempted to further dismantle Ukraine on Tuesday by voting in favour of a motion calling on Putin to recognize as independent republics the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Russian proxy forces have been fighting Ukrainian soldiers.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry responded sharply, saying that if Putin supports the resolution, “it will have much broader, destructive consequences for the international rule of law” and global security.
Matthew Schmidt is an associate professor and national security expert at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. He said the emphasis NATO allies place on geopolitics and the rules-based international order may mean very little to Putin — who may be looking at the current standoff through a quasi-religious lens.
It’s not enough, Schmidt said, to say Putin wants to reassemble the old Soviet Union. Putin is a subscriber to an early 20th century philosophical and political movement called Eurasianism, he said — a creed that rejects Russia’s integration with Europe.
Eurasianism died out during communist rule but rebounded in the early 21st century — and Putin has written about it.
“He said this is quasi-religious … the idea that there is sacred soil that exists outside of that, the territorial borders of Russia, and that what you need to do is regain that sacred soil and the ethnic Russians that are on it, whether they want to be part of your state or not,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt said the idea of Putin looking at Ukraine through a nationalist or ethnic-identity lens is one of the most alarming things about the standoff over Ukraine.
It’s also something non-Russians tend to overlook in their eagerness to interpret Putin’s actions and motivations, he said — the possibility that the consequences of invading Ukraine mean little to him in the face of a quasi-religious quest.
“So if that’s driving him, I think all bets are off,” said Schmidt.
Russia has said consistently that while it doesn’t intend to invade Ukraine, it wants security guarantees. Moscow has demanded a legally binding promise that Kyiv will never be allowed to join NATO and it wants NATO to roll back its deployments in eastern Europe to 1997 levels.
The threat of imminent invasion has prompted Western countries, including Canada, to scale back and even relocate some embassy operations. Last weekend, Canada withdrew its military training troops from Ukraine after the United States and the United Kingdom shut down their own training courses.
- In a Ukrainian border town, children practise drills and stockpile supplies in case of Russian attack
Schmidt said Putin has succeeded in making NATO more relevant than it has been in decades, but the withdrawal of Western training missions has handed him a minor victory inside Ukraine.
“He’s taught the Ukrainians they can’t rely on the West,” said Schmidt. “That is important to prepare the battlefield for what comes next.
“He embarrassed the West and that’s what he wanted.”