(Bloomberg) -- Vladimir Putin likes keeping Western leaders on their toes, guessing what his intentions are and what he might do next. The Russian president has been doing it for more than two decades and mostly getting away with it.
As thousands of Russian troops began withdrawing from the Ukrainian border Friday, easing some of the worst tensions with the U.S. and Europe since the Cold War, there’s quiet satisfaction in the Kremlin that the high-risk gambit paid off.
Amid rising alarm in Western capitals over the massive Russian build-up, U.S. President Joe Biden picked up the phone to Putin on April 13 and offered the first summit meeting between the two leaders. Forcing the new administration to recognize that it needs to engage with Moscow was seen in the Kremlin as a tactical win for Putin, according to three people close to the Russian leadership.
Biden’s White House had hoped to put Russia on the back-burner in order to focus on the more pressing priority of responding to China. Putin’s surprise military maneuver upended those calculations, according to a senior State Department official.
While German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron spearheaded appeals for Putin to back down, the 27-member European Union was weighing potential sanctions including targeting Russia’s military capabilities in response to any aggression in Ukraine, according to a diplomatic memorandum seen by Bloomberg.
For the U.S. and its European allies, the weeks-long crisis after Russia moved an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks, ships and warplanes to the Ukrainian border was a sobering reminder of Putin’s ability to raise the stakes in relations. Years of sanctions since his 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Ukraine’s east have done little to force him to change direction, even as they have squeezed Russia’s stuttering economy.
The swings in the drama set Russia’s ruble wobbling, first sliding amid fears of conflict then rebounding as tensions receded.
“Russia’s only instrument to show that it is a great power is strength, tanks,” said Gerard Araud, France’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2014 to 2019. “It’s a show of force for Biden to say ‘Don’t forget me, I am a world power.’”
The view from Moscow is very different, fueled by a sense of grievance that the West is determined to weaken Russia and stoke a pro-democracy “color” revolution to topple Putin. By this reading, the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have repeatedly betrayed Russia, abandoning missile treaties and expanding ever closer to its borders, since Putin became the first foreign leader to offer help to Washington after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
“The Kremlin feels in a fortress, under sustained pressure from the U.S. and the West in general. With its aggressive actions, Russia is trying to deter the U.S., but Washington is just responding with stronger measures,” said Oksana Antonenko, a director at Control Risks in London. “We are certainly at the most dangerous point since the Soviet Union collapsed.”
Every round of brinkmanship has brought higher costs and left Russia increasingly isolated. NATO, a military alliance in search of a mission a decade ago, has been reinvigorated as member states boost defense spending in response to the perceived threat from the east.
Biden’s summit invitation was accompanied by another round of U.S. sanctions as punishment for hacking attacks and election meddling blamed on Russia that the Kremlin denies. Amid tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, the ambassadors of both nations are in their respective capitals for consultations.
Biden is trying to recalibrate the U.S. approach to Russia following tumultuous years under Donald Trump, whose approach to Moscow was driven by his defensiveness over a lengthy investigation into accusations of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. Biden’s more muscular tone -- he recently labeled Putin a “killer” -- comes even as the U.S. president is still putting his foreign policy team in place.
The deepening tensions have made it harder for some east European countries to maintain warm ties with Moscow, thinning the already-limited ranks of Russia’s friends.
The Czech Republic ordered out scores of Russian diplomats this month after blaming Kremlin spies for a deadly 2014 blast at a munitions warehouse, as relations plunged to their lowest in decades. Slovakia and the Baltic states kicked out Russian diplomats in solidarity with Prague. Separately, Poland expelled three Russian diplomats in support of the U.S. measures.
On Wednesday, the day before Russia announced its troop withdrawal, Putin warned rival nations not to cross Russia’s “red line” in his annual state-of-the-nation speech, saying pressure on his country had become “a new form of sport.” But he also held out an olive branch of talks on strategic security.
“The Kremlin’s calculation is that this will bolster Russia’s weight and offer an opportunity to come to an understanding with the West,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked as a Kremlin political adviser during Putin’s first decade in power until 2011. “Ukraine is peripheral here, this is about Russia’s global status.”
To be sure, Russia’s energy-dependent $1.5 trillion economy -- about twice the size of the U.S. Defense Department budget -- is vulnerable to Western economic pressure. While Putin remains broadly popular with Russians, his approval rating has slipped amid years of slumping incomes.
Russia’s treatment of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who ended a hunger strike Friday after 24 days, is also aggravating relations. The U.S. and the EU have demanded his release, while Merkel and Macron have raised the case directly with Putin.
The Russian president is unmoved. Prosecutors this month asked a Moscow court to declare Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his campaign offices to be extremist organizations, which could subject staff and volunteers to criminal prosecution and imprisonment. They accused them of plotting to stage a “color” revolution in Russia on the instructions of unnamed foreign states.
A top Putin ally, Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s lower house of parliament, described Navalny as a “tool of American policy” that allowed himself to be used for interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs.
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This is a sore spot for Putin, who’s convinced the U.S. was behind democratic revolutions in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine that ousted pro-Russia allies. In 2011, he accused then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of sending “a signal” to encourage protests led by Navalny against his 2012 return to the presidency in place of Dmitry Medvedev.
In his call with Biden, Putin raised an alleged plot to stage a coup against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko hatched in consultation with the U.S., according to the Kremlin. Lukashenko, who’s ruled Russia’s neighbor and closest ally since 1994, has faced months of pro-democracy opposition protests since disputed elections last August.
“The practice of organizing coups and planning political assassinations, including of top officials, that’s going too far,” Putin said in his annual address. “They’ve overstepped all boundaries.”
In talks with Lukashenko in Moscow next day, Putin said Russia is tightening military and security cooperation with Belarus.
Putin wants the U.S. and its allies to back off and treat him as an equal, said the three people close to the leadership. He may even be willing to reduce Russia’s support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine in return for a softening of sanctions and de facto acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, one of them said.
There’s little chance the West would agree to give Putin free rein in Russia’s self-defined sphere of influence over the former Soviet republics, even if it has given him a broader berth after he showed willingness to use force in Georgia in the brief 2008 war.
Russia “will always outdo” the West if there’s an escalation on Ukraine said Araud, the former French diplomat. “No German or American soldier will die for Kyiv, but Russian soldiers would.”
The show of force over Ukraine unnerved policy-makers in the West, provoking real fears of a Russian invasion according to a U.K. government official.
“Their primary intention is to intimidate,” said Philip Breedlove, NATO’s former chief commander at the time of Russia’s 2014 intervention in Ukraine. “They’ve been sending a clear message to Ukraine, Europe and America.”
The chances of a Ukraine offensive were always minimal because of the extreme consequences it would provoke, and “for Russia it’s clear it wouldn’t be in its interests,” said Alexei Chesnakov, a former senior Kremlin official and adviser on Ukrainian policy.
Putin has shown he’s not deterred by the threat of more penalties, said Breedlove, who’s now an expert at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “We need to respond broadly. All we ever do is reply with sanctions.”
Putin insisted in Wednesday’s address that “we really don’t want to burn bridges” with the West, before adding that anyone who mistakes Russian intentions for weakness “must know that Russia’s response will be asymmetrical, swift and tough.”
Next day, the Russian leader dutifully attended Biden’s online climate summit, sticking to his allotted time for his speech to other world leaders and later winning rare praise from the U.S. president for his contribution.
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