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Putin has an exit from the conflict
It's just that he might prefer the road to war
I keep hearing pundits say that Vladimir Putin is "up a tree" or "in a corner." The idea is that, having surrounded Ukraine with troops and armor, he must invade lest he lose face with his own people. I do not believe that this is the case.
Russians are not evaluating the situation in the same way that Americans do. The American message is that 190,000 Russian troops are in place to carry out an invasion. I am not judging that issue here. I don't pretend to know. I just want to note that this is not the prevailing view in Russia, and that this has some significance for the chances of peace.
As far as I can tell, Russians do not believe that their leaders are planning an invasion of Ukraine. They might be afraid of a war in Ukraine, but that is not the same thing as believing that their country will initiate it. Again, they might be wrong; but that is not the issue here. The point is that Russians would not see a drawdown of forces from the Russian-Ukrainian border as a defeat, since they are neither expecting an invasion nor wishing for one.
If Putin is issuing a call for national support for an invasion of Ukraine, Russians are not hearing it. In the discussions I have been following, the issue of whether to support a Russian invasion of Ukraine does not arise, because even the most enthusiastic supporters of Putin do not regard this as his policy.
Such people do speak of provocative Americans and Ukrainians, and that is rhetoric that could be used to justify a major Russian action after a covert Russian action is presented as a Ukrainian or American attack. Even so: that Russia must invade Ukraine or be humiliated is not a position I frequently encounter. Putin may hold it; but if so, he would not seem to have much backing.
The Russian media and political elite form a loud chorus denying that Russia will invade Ukraine. These people are certainly aware that there is such a possibility, but they have extended themselves very far in denying it. One might suspect that this is for foreign consumption, but I don't think so: influential Russians instrumental in the buildup to the last war in Ukraine now say something else: that American provocations and fraternal war are to be avoided. Even the Russian fascists who have always wanted Russia to destroy Ukraine hedge their bets by saying that an invasion would be a response to an American provocation.
It does seem strange that Russia has assembled a huge force around Ukraine obviously designed for invasion, while the Russian elite claims that war is impossible. The foreign ministry has mocked the American predictions of war rather unforgettably. There are three possibilities: Russian elites know that a war is coming and they are part of the propaganda; they know a war is not coming and are saying what they know; and that they have no idea what Putin actually intends, are afraid of the worst like everyone else, and are trying to affect reality by what they say.
I don't know, but option three seems possible to me. I suspect that some of what seems to be directed towards us is actually meant as part of a Russian domestic conversation.
I doubt options one and two, because I don't think anyone knows what Putin intends until he does it, including Putin himself. Putin's odd ideas about Ukraine are not widely shared, and pretty much everyone in Moscow realizes that a war based on the assumption that Ukrainians and Russians are brothers is bloody madness. Yet is impossible to express open opposition to Putin and remain in Russian public life.
What one can do is take what is meant as a lie and try to turn it into the truth. That just might be happening here. When Putin says that there will be no invasion, perhaps he means to deceive. When others close to the Kremlin repeat this denial loudly and with exuberance, or even say that the mobilization of forces is just a bluff, they are perhaps trying to make sure that Putin will not feel humiliated if he does choose to withdraw. This would make sense of the jarring contrast between the Russian force on the ground and the categorical denials of important Russians that anything can happen.
However that might be, Putin has an exit. He is free to pull the troops back, then to say that nothing was intended beyond maneuvers, and that the Americans were just hysterical. Most Russians would nod and then and think about something else. Americans can make this easier by continuing to propose meaningful multilateral negotiations on European security and other issues, regardless of whether or not Russia is threatening Ukraine.
Putin has freedom of action. He can choose to invade, or not to invade.