Russian President Vladimir Putin is a master of the art of escalation and de-escalation. In the recent past, we have seen Moscow make nice statements and actually pull back from the conflict zone in East Ukraine, only to reappear in strength and apply significant deadly force to help pro-Russian separatists wrest territory and key logistical nodes from Ukrainian control.
Once again, there are mixed signals emanating from the Kremlin. There are reports that Russia has cut off electricity supplies to some separatist-controlled areas in the East as the bills were not being paid. Pro-Russian militants have pulled back from the strategically important city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov which, if controlled by Russia, could provide a land bridge for resupply to the Crimean Peninsula, a capability Mr. Putin covets. And Moscow is making noise that it wants the Minsk agreements to be fully implemented to “defuse” the crisis in East Ukraine.
What is the motivation behind these developments? It is hard to read the tea leaves and discern Moscow’s agenda. However, a case could be made that Russia has overextended itself. The annexation of the Crimean Peninsula is proving to be very expensive. The sanctions from the European Union are crippling the region as tourism has dried up. The continuing conflict in East Ukraine has sapped the Kremlin of resources and respect on the international stage. The price of oil is crumbling as the Chinese bubble is bursting. The “pivot East” by the Kremlin doesn’t look so productive.
There are also signs that the Russian public may be tiring of the Kremlin’s policy as social services are cut and Russian soldiers continue to die. In addition, another frozen conflict in Transniester (near Ukraine) is showing signs of re-igniting as Ukraine cuts off supply routes to Russian forces in the breakaway region.
Amid all of this, Ukrainian drones have released video evidence of a Russian base full of armor and supplies very near the city of Mariupol. So, the evidence is mixed as to Russia’s intentions. However, it seems that Moscow is indeed backing off its support of the rebels, at least in the short term, having achieved its aim of destabilizing the government in Kiev.
The more aggressive posture coming out of NATO and Washington could also have dampened the Kremlin’s appetite for further aggression. American commanders in the region have suggested Russia is simply using the time to re-arm and reposition its forces.
Whether we are witnessing a real change in Russian behavior or simply a lull in a continued and more violent conflict remains to be seen.