As the Ukraine Crisis Seems to Ease, Owen Matthews Analyzes Vladimir Putin's Military Maneuvers

As the Ukraine Crisis Seems to Ease, Owen Matthews Analyzes Vladimir Putin’s Military Maneuvers

President Vladimir Putin acted as a peacemaker yesterday, talking about the “negotiation process” and assuring that “of course” he does not want war with Ukraine.

There have also been reports of the withdrawal of some troops, with pictures showing tanks leaving Russian bases on the border with Ukraine.

But did Putin really blink? Or was the threat of war just part of a grand bluff?

Some fear that a surprise invasion could still happen, perhaps under the guise of a “false flag” in which a fake attack on Russian troops is used to justify war.

The Ukrainian Defense Minister, for example, remains suspicious. “Don’t believe what you hear,” Dmitry Kuleba said after Putin’s conciliatory words.

Of course, there are many reasons why we should not trust Putin.

The mobilization of half of Russia’s active military units from as far afield as the Arctic and Eastern Siberia was certainly a threat.

And there are detailed plans for an invasion drawn up by his generals and leaked to Western intelligence, as well as Russia’s supply of blood plasma to the area and the construction of field hospitals. An invasion is not out of the question.

ARIES MATHEWS: Did Putin really blink?  Or was the threat of war just part of a grand bluff?  (Pictured: Vladimir Putin speaks at a press conference with the German Chancellor on February 15, 2022)

ARIES MATHEWS: Did Putin really blink? Or was the threat of war just part of a grand bluff? (Pictured: Vladimir Putin speaks at a press conference with the German Chancellor on February 15, 2022)

But as someone who has lived in Russia for many years and written about the country, I believe that Putin has everything to gain by proposing an invasion, and everything to lose by actually doing so.

He has made no public threats or demands to Kiev – only NATO, from which he says he wants assurance that the Western Alliance will stop expanding towards Russia’s borders.

But if he is not going to invade, why scare the world with mobilization?

The answer is that he wants to be taken seriously, and he succeeded.

Both Putin and his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, have always viewed NATO’s eastward expansion as a real threat to Russia’s security, but until recently, NATO saw Russia as poor, isolated, and weak enough to be ignored. Never ever.

Western leaders, including Germany’s Olaf Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron, rushed to the Kremlin for emergency peace talks.

US President Joe Biden has already held one summit with Putin and promised another.

The couple also regularly speaks on the Moscow-Washington hotline.

Aside from the attention, if Putin succeeds in changing the direction of the NATO enlargement debate, he will also win.

The West can be largely united in the threat of “serious consequences” if invaded, and they will certainly sway.

But Putin nonetheless exposed vast cracks within the alliance over the expansion of NATO membership to Ukraine.

Western leaders, including Germany's Olaf Scholz and France's Emmanuel Macron, rushed to the Kremlin for emergency peace talks.  US President Joe Biden (pictured) has already held one summit with Putin and promised another.

Western leaders, including Germany’s Olaf Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron, rushed to the Kremlin for emergency peace talks. US President Joe Biden (pictured) has already held one summit with Putin and promised another.

For new members such as Poland and the Baltic states, which have a long history of Russian occupation, Putin’s threat of mobilization is an argument in favor of accelerating Ukraine’s entry.

But the big beasts of NATO, including France, Germany and especially the US, understand that Ukraine’s entry could spark a war.

Even the UK, a longtime supporter of NATO expansion, has noticed the change in opinion.

Boris Johnson was actively involved in mobilizing international support for sanctions in the event of an invasion.

He also sent thousands of anti-tank missiles to Kiev, as well as British Army personnel to train Ukrainians.

But many commentators on the British political spectrum have now begun to question the benefits of Ukraine’s NATO membership.

This is increasingly a reckless provocative stance – just as Putin wants it to be.

More importantly, the Ukrainians themselves are far from united with regard to NATO.

A large minority fear that flirting with NATO will lead to destabilization and war.

ARIES MATHEWS: Boris Johnson was actively involved in mobilizing international support for sanctions in the event of an invasion… But many observers on the British political spectrum have now begun to question the benefits of Ukraine's NATO membership.  (Pictured: Mr. Johnson visiting a facility in his constituency on Tuesday)

ARIES MATHEWS: Boris Johnson was actively involved in mobilizing international support for sanctions in the event of an invasion… But many observers on the British political spectrum have now begun to question the benefits of Ukraine’s NATO membership. (Pictured: Mr. Johnson visiting a facility in his constituency on Tuesday)

But if you still doubt me about this gigantic Putin bluff, I can provide more evidence.

Polls consistently show that a majority of Russians oppose a full-scale invasion, and 66% of Russians under 25 have a “positive” view of Ukraine. War will be hard to sell.

It is important to note that the Russian state media also do not argue in favor of this. In the run-up to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the airwaves were filled with hate-filled propaganda against the “fascists” in power in Kiev.

Finally, what about Western intelligence reports that the Russian army has developed detailed invasion plans? Well, their existence on paper does not mean they will be executed.

Opportunity does not equal intention, and that is the key to understanding this crisis.

Meanwhile, there is nothing politically wrong with Western leaders to exaggerate the threat that Putin will indeed invade Ukraine.

Biden is facing a dramatic loss of support. Boris Johnson is fighting for his political life after Partygate. Both leaders benefit from speaking tough and challenging Putin.

But contrary to such rhetoric, Putin will not lose face if he backs off. At least not in front of his people.

ARIES MATHEWS: Meanwhile, there is nothing politically wrong with Western leaders to exaggerate the threat that Putin will actually invade Ukraine.  (Pictured: students undergo combat and sports training in the Ryazan region of Russia, February 15, 2022)

ARIES MATHEWS: Meanwhile, there is nothing politically wrong with Western leaders to exaggerate the threat that Putin will actually invade Ukraine. (Pictured: students undergo combat and sports training in the Ryazan region of Russia, February 15, 2022)

He doesn’t need to go through with any threats to Ukraine because he didn’t make them.

As for the Russian people, their military is conducting planned exercises with Belarus.

At the same time, the US indicates that it is ready to discuss arms control treaties for the deployment of short-range missiles near the NATO-Russian border. This, of course, will be perceived by the Kremlin as a victory.

As well as, of course, containment of any plans for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. But the danger remains.

Some troops may have retreated from the front lines, but one word from Putin and they’ll be back, ratcheting up the pressure again until their president gets what he wants.

Owen Matthews is a writer and historian specializing in Russia.

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