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Analysis: Putin can still turn back but it looks less likely as economic and political consequences mount
Russia’s aggressive buildup near Ukraine energised Nato into sending more forces to eastern Europe on Monday and led to a plunge on Russian markets, raising the stakes on the Kremlin’s bet that it could cajole, extort or force Ukraine into submission.
For Moscow it has become more difficult to pull back from its aggressive stance after US and Nato announcements that more troops would be deployed to the military alliance’s eastern flank. A unilateral drawdown now would leave the Kremlin a clear loser in the standoff, having provoked a strengthening of the very Nato presence that it had sought to banish from eastern Europe.
Moscow has blamed the west for rising tensions and the chaos on Russian financial markets. “We are observing statements published by the North Atlantic Alliance about an enlargement of the contingent and the deployment of forces and hardware to the eastern flank. All that leads to the further escalation of tensions,” claimed Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, on Monday. “Please note that all of that is not happening because of what we, Russia, do. This is happening because of the actions of Nato and the United States and the information they release.”
Moscow’s dubious diplomacy and unprecedented buildup along the Ukrainian border, including in neighbouring Belarus, had already convinced many security analysts that the Kremlin is seeking a war. There was never much chance that the foreign ministry would secure its maximalist “security guarantees”, including the retreat of Nato from all countries that joined the alliance after 1997.
Vladimir Putin does still have the option to turn back. An about-face would be embarrassing and make the west less likely to listen to his warnings in the future. But he would face little domestic blowback from ordering a drawdown and could claim he had taken the first step to avoid a devastating conflict.
Yet that has become less likely as Moscow begins to face serious economic and political consequences from its great gambit. Western governments have shown they take the threat of war seriously, warning of tough sanctions and even beginning to order the evacuation of families of diplomats in Ukraine because of the threat of “significant military action against Ukraine”.
Russian financial markets took a beating as they woke up this week to the devastating potential for a conflict with Ukraine. Russian blue-chip stocks such as Sberbank and Gazprom lost more than 10% in trading on Monday and the Russian Central Bank was forced to temporarily halt purchases of foreign currency as the rouble has fallen nearly 6% against the dollar since the beginning of January.
And Moscow’s public demands that Nato clear out of eastern and central Europe have backfired as the threat of war has increased the demands for deployments closer to Russia’s borders.
“We are reaching the point where continuous Russian and Belarusian military buildup in Europe needs to be addressed by appropriate Nato countermeasures,” said Edgars Rinkēvičs, the Latvian foreign minister, on Monday. “It is time to increase allied forces presence in the alliance’s eastern flank both as measures of defence and deterrence.”
Nato said some member countries would put troops on standby and deploy ships and fighter jets to the region as a military conflict in Ukraine appears increasingly likely.
And the Biden administration is considering deploying thousands of troops to eastern European countries in a “major pivot” from its previous “do-not-provoke [Russia] strategy”, the New York Times reported.
While the deployments are unlikely to deter a Russian attack in Ukraine, they are a signal that Nato countries are ready to strengthen their presence in the region. The Biden administration is said to be considering a tenfold increase in forces to eastern Europe if Putin does launch an attack.
“Nato itself will continue to be reinforced in a significant way if Russia commits renewed acts of aggression. All of that is on the table,” the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said on the Sunday morning US TV programme Face the Nation.
Russian officials who have overseen the buildup are now accusing the west of provoking a crisis. “The threat of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, which exists solely in the fevered minds of the west, is being taken advantage of to rationalise the alliance’s relevance and willingness to give ‘protection’ to its allies,” said the Russian deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko.
But as the standoff continues, the costs for Moscow are rising, possibly convincing the Kremlin that the time to act is now.