After testing the world’s limits, Vladimir Putin steps back from the brink

The Russian president went up to the brink — and then, with the eyes of the world upon him, stepped back from it.

State television images on Friday showed Russian forces that had amassed near Ukraine — sparking fears of an imminent full-scale war in Europe — being loaded onto trains and ships to be pulled back. The same day, imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny announced he was ending his three-week hunger strike because his demands for independent medical care had been, at last, sufficiently met.

The performative blend of fear, suspense and force that President Vladimir Putin deploys to affirm his power reached a crescendo this week, illuminating the ever-harder-line tactics to which he is prepared to resort in order to cement and project his influence. Yet it also became clear by Friday that Putin saw the anxiety he was able to induce at home and abroad as a tool to be modulated depending on changing circumstances or in the service of a broader aim.

It was a distillation, in short, of Putin’s tactical, high-stakes rule that evokes his past as an officer in the KGB: keeping the adversary guessing and off balance, while also being prepared to exercise restraint as long as he can save face.

“This is theater, in part,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former top adviser Putin, referring to the week’s drama. “But it is theater that is important for our system.”

It was a week that shed light on the logic of Putin’s new Cold War — a term that his own former prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, used in an article published by a Russian government news agency Friday. In his conflict with the West, Putin depends on the threat of escalation, a tactic that has taken on increasingly dire forms as the conflict has intensified.

The week began with 100,000 Russian troops gathered on Ukraine’s doorstep; Navalny near death in prison, according to his associates; and Putin gearing up for an annual state of the nation speech at which analysts predicted he could reveal a plan to annex part of Ukraine or merge with neighboring Belarus.

Putin did neither in his speech Wednesday, spending most of it on domestic issues as granular as discounts on children’s summer camps. The same evening, when thousands of Navalny’s supporters mounted protests nationwide, the police in many cities took an extraordinarily hands-off approach — arresting just 32 people in Moscow, for instance, compared with more than 1,900 at a pro-Navalny rally Jan. 31.

On Thursday, Putin’s defense minister announced a partial pullback of troops, a step welcomed by Ukraine’s president in a nervous Kyiv. Putin held out an olive branch to U.S. President Joe Biden by appearing at his online climate summit. And Friday, Navalny said his hunger strike demanding better medical care had “achieved enough” after he was examined twice by civilian doctors.

“No matter how much the system tries to show itself to be a deaf-mute, thousand-ton monolith, it in fact continues to react to pressure from inside and outside,” a top aide to Navalny, Leonid Volkov, posted on Twitter.

In Medvedev’s article interpreting the week’s events and published Friday morning, he compared the current state of world affairs to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of nuclear war. The problem today, unlike the original Cold War, he wrote, was that the United States no longer respected Russia’s strength.

“If the consequences of victory are so great that they put in question the continued existence of the victor, then this is not a victory,” Medvedev, deputy chair of Putin’s Security Council, wrote in a not-so-veiled reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

A risk of Putin’s escalatory approach to foreign policy is that he may need to up the ante to achieve the desired effect. That was the case with Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine. While the war in eastern Ukraine has lasted since 2014, with Moscow sending arms and men to the separatists it backs, the Kremlin had not since the outset of hostilities threatened as explicitly to openly invade Ukraine as it did in recent weeks.

Pavlovsky, who advised the Kremlin until 2011, compares Putin’s system to a ratchet: a mechanism that, even with occasional pauses, can only turn in one direction.

“When the system is all built on the principle of escalation, it cannot pull back in earnest,” he said.

In Kyiv, some officials and Western diplomats believe that Putin’s troop buildup was an expensive and high-wire effort to rattle a Ukrainian government that had taken a tougher turn against Russia in recent months. It was also a message to Biden, they say, that Russia continued to insist on its dominance of the post-Soviet space, no matter what sanctions may come its way.

“He thinks he needs to sit down at the table with the Americans and make a deal on dividing up spheres of influence,” said Oleksiy Danilov, national security adviser of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine, describing his view of Putin’s ultimate motive.

By this week, Putin had sent his message, with Ukraine preparing for the possibility of full-scale war. Biden last week called and invited him to meet, giving the Kremlin the welcome opportunity to leave open the possibility that Putin might not even accept.

“We have also heard the words from our American counterparts about their readiness to carry on a dialogue on issues of mutual interest,” Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said Friday. “But unfortunately, the Americans’ declarations have not coincided with concrete actions.”

Putin’s next crisis might not come with as smooth a path to de-escalation. And some of the Russian troops being pulled back from near the Ukrainian border Friday were ordered to leave their armored vehicles behind, underscoring the continuing tensions in that conflict.

“The danger is that he has this total obsession with not seeming weak,” Kadri Liik, a policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin, said of Putin. “That, of course, puts a double burden on others; you need to keep the way for retreat open for him as well.”

At home, the softening that Putin has signaled with the improved treatment of Navalny and the police’s light touch at Wednesday’s protests is likely to be short-lived. Next week, a Moscow court will consider a bid by prosecutors to outlaw Navalny’s organization outright — a step that could pave the way for a new wave of criminal cases against the opposition.

And Friday, the Justice Ministry declared Meduza, one of the most popular Russian-language news sites, to be a “foreign agent.” The designation will make it more difficult for the Latvia-based news organization to operate in Russia and marks a major step in the Kremlin’s battle against independent media.

To be sure, even those close to Russia’s ruling elite sometimes caution against trying to identify a single coherent strategy in the Kremlin’s moves. Konstantin Remchukov, a newspaper editor who ran the reelection campaign of the mayor of Moscow in 2018, said that some powerful factions push Putin toward even more hard-line policies than he is personally inclined to pursue — an “under-the-carpet dogfight in the Kremlin.”

While the country as a whole suffers economically from sanctions, some factions in the elite benefit from businesses substituting for imports blocked by those measures, or from military contracts, Remchukov said. These groups also include the powerful leadership in the security services, who reap greater resources and influence when tensions rise.

These groups are seen as pushing for confrontational policies that Putin sometimes has to rein in, Remchukov said. The dynamic is pushing Russia, he added, into an era of “geopolitical solitude.”

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