MOSCOW â€” Buffeted by a plummeting Russian financial market and outrage from the West over his aggressive actions in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin appeared to blink Tuesday as he broke his silence and declared he had no intention of harming his “brothers” in Ukraine.
The Russian leader struck a conciliatory tone after the European Union announced an emergency summit on whether to impose sanctions and the Russian market tumbled by 13% on Monday.
Even President Obama tempered his continuing criticism of the Russian leader, acknowledging that Putin is “pausing for a moment and reflecting on what’s happened.”
But some analysts suggested that Putin had simply quit while he was ahead, after taking control of military bases, airfields and border crossings in Crimea and making clear he will dictate future political events.
“It was as though he took a step back, saying, ‘We’ll wait and see,’ ” said Ilya Ponomaryov, a member of the Russian parliament who is not affiliated with Putin’s ruling party.
Ponomaryov said it appeared Putin may have felt he had overplayed his hand, given the days of denunciations and threats of financial penalties against Russia. Though no such threats have been carried out, Putin may have felt he needed to ratchet back to prevent that from happening.
“Putin’s comments on Tuesday gave a sense of relative sobriety after his actions over the weekend frightened a lot of people,” Ponomaryov said.
There were certainly signs Tuesday that Putin was stepping off the gas as far as a deeper incursion in Ukraine is concerned.
Russia agreed to a NATO request for a special meeting between his military and members of the U.S.-Europe military alliance in Brussels, opening up a possible diplomatic channel.
Putin said massive military maneuvers Russia had been executing on the Ukraine border, involving 150,000 troops, had been previously planned and were unrelated to the political upheaval in Ukraine. Russia announced that Putin had ordered the troops back to their bases.
In an hour-long meeting with reporters Tuesday, Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea and that people there have the right to determine their status in a referendum later this month. Crimean tensions, Putin said, “have been settled.”
Russia did not want “to fight the Ukrainian people,” he said, after having just done so by moving thousands of Russian troops into Crimea over the objections of the central government in Kiev. Many in eastern and southern Ukraine, which includes Crimea, identify with Russia, while the rest of the deeply divided country is oriented toward Europe.
“It seems to me (Ukraine) is gradually stabilizing,” Putin said in his first remarks since Russian forces joined pro-Moscow Ukrainians to close off the peninsula of Crimea. “We have no enemies in Ukraine. Ukraine is a friendly state.”
Ukrainian troops watch as Russian Navy ships block the entrance of the Ukrainian navy base in Sevastopol, Ukraine.
Meeting with Ukraine’s new acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sounded skeptical about the kinder, gentler Putin.
“It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further,” Kerry said. “It is not appropriate to invade a country, and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve. That is not 21st-century, G-8, major nation behavior.”
Ukraine continued to simmer with unrest Tuesday, with riots in many cities. In Crimea, troops loyal to Moscow fired warning shots to frighten off protesting Ukrainian soldiers. Heavily armed Russian soldiers have closed off the port city on the Black Sea, blocking border crossings, military bases and airfields.
Two Ukrainian warships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, blocked from leaving by Russian ships. Pro-Russian demonstrators took over buildings in Donetsk in east Ukraine and tried to do the same in the major port city of Odessa.
World markets bounced back Tuesday, seemingly soothed by Putin’s claims that he has no intent of a deeper invasion. But others warned that this is no retreat by the Russian leader.
“Putin’s statement that he did not see an immediate need to authorize a Russian invasion of Ukraine suggests a reduced threat of Russian military intervention,” said Alisa Lockwood, a European analyst at IHS, a U.S.-based consulting firm. “However, he has reserved the right to order an invasion in the coming weeks or even months.”
Analysts say Putin’s retreat may be strategic. After all, they say, he had nothing to lose by approving a meeting with NATO, since the alliance has already said it would not be taking military action against Russia. The troops that have returned to their barracks can move out at any time along Russia’s 1,300-mile long border with Ukraine.
Ukraine could muster no effective military opposition, and Putin can now wait and see if Crimea holds a referendum on whether to declare full autonomy from Kiev, as he himself has declared it must do.
Putin’s comments on the rights of Crimeans were of no comfort to Kiev, which insists that Crimea is part of Ukraine and has no authority to hold a referendum that would play into Putin’s desire to control the province â€” as he has done with the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova.
Serhiy Solodky, deputy director of the Institute of World Policy in Kiev, says whatever Putin is doing, he’s not done.
“The Russian leadership want to re-establish the Russian empire,” he said. “They have drawn so-called ‘red lines’ where the European Union or NATO cannot be enlarged.”
Ukraine now has one, he says.
Lounging in an armchair before Russian tricolor flags in his suburban estate in Moscow, Putin talked with reporters for an hour yet gave no real hint of what lies ahead. He used earthy language and took swipes at the West, accusing it of backing an “unconstitutional coup” in Ukraine. Pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in the wake of massive demonstrations last month.
“About deploying troops, so far, there is no need for that. But such an option exists,” he said, later watching a test of new Russian ballistic missiles.
Putin has been an enigma to the leaders of the West, some of whom felt that Moscow desired a better relationship to improve the country’s economy and calm world conflicts.
Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says there are a few things to keep in mind when trying to determine Putin’s aims.
“First, just as a U.S. Marine is always a U.S. Marine, so a KGB colonel is always a KGB colonel,” he wrote recently. “Second, he believes that the ‘demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the 20th century.”
Solodky says whatever Putin is thinking in the long term, it is clear that what he is doing now is aimed at destroying any chance of Ukraine moving in the orbit of Europe and the West.
The first step was to pressure Yanukovych to renege on a deal to strengthen Ukraine’s trade and economic ties to the European Union. The pact was years in the making and a signing ceremony days away when Yanukovych instead agreed to a deal with Putin for $15 billion in aid and below-market prices on natural gas.
It was Putin’s move that infuriated Ukrainians in Kiev and elsewhere and prompted widespread protest against the Yanukovych-controlled parliament. Putin responded by demonizing as “terrorists” the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who demanded the pact with the EU be inked.
When dozens of the protesters were mowed down by gunfire, Putin granted Yanukovych asylum and described him as the legal president of Ukraine even though members of Yanukovych’s own party voted to replace him.
The first eastern Slavic state of Rus was founded around what is now the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in the ninth century. Russia is spoken in East Ukraine routinely. So Russia has deep connections to Ukraine, deeper than other former republics of the Soviet Union that declared independence following the state’s demise in 1991. And Putin covets them all, analysts say.
Meantime, the new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev, which Putin refuses to recognize, expressed hope that a negotiated solution could be found.
“We hope that Russia will understand its responsibility in destabilizing the security situation in Europe, that Russia will realize that Ukraine is an independent state and that Russian troops will leave the territory of Ukraine,” interim prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.
So what does Putin ultimately have in mind for Ukraine? Leon Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, suggests even the Russian president might not be sure.
“Putin has trusted his luck and his smarts while counting on his opponents’ weaknesses,” Aron said. “This means he has operated in accordance with Napoleon’s principle…which I would translate as, ‘First get into a fight, and then decide what to do.’ “