For Ukraine, it now looks official. The Russians aren't coming.
Almost four months after Russia's upper house of parliament granted Vladimir Putin blanket permission to use military force in Ukraine, Mr. Putin on Tuesday appealed to lawmakers to rescind that resolution.
The Kremlin typically goes to great lengths to clad everything it does in an outward appearance of strict legality. Analysts agree it is signalling that despite months of tension over its military buildup, and many false alarms, the Russian army will probably not be marching into Ukraine.
Putin did use his military powers once, to seize control of the Russian-majority Crimean peninsula, which was annexed to Russia after a hasty referendum.
The Kremlin said only that it was asking parliament to revoke Putin's special powers in connection with the "tripartite talks" that have begun between Kiev, the armed rebels, and Russia-connected mediators on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's peace plan.
Until Putin's change of tune, Ukrainian rebels had refused to abide by the "unilateral cease-fire" ordered by Poroshenko last Friday, insisting that all Ukrainian troops must be withdrawn from the restive regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as a precondition for peace.
But on Monday the prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Borodai, announced that the insurgents would abide by the cease-fire until it expires Friday. He told journalists he hoped the joint cease-fire would lead to negotiations toward a peaceful settlement of the conflict.
Though Poroshenko has vowed not to talk directly with the armed rebels, Ukrainian media report that he has empowered former President Leonid Kuchma to speak to them on behalf of Kiev.
Initial talks in Donetsk on Monday between Mr. Kuchma, rebel leaders, Russian ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, Ukrainian pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, and a European envoy reportedly yielded preliminary agreements on sensitive issues such as monitoring the cease-fire and releasing hostages.
Road map for Ukraine
Russia has been insisting all along that Kiev needs to agree on a "road map" of changes that would include protected status for the Russian language, significant autonomy for eastern Ukraine, and guarantees that Ukraine would never join NATO.
"These talks may or may not go anywhere. But Putin is making it very clear that Russia is not going to interfere directly in Ukraine," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.
"Hopefully that will end all the claims that 'Russian aggression' is the root cause of Ukraine's problems. The fact is that these insurgents are composed of the private armies of oligarchs, professional adventurers, wayward idiots, all sorts of people that Putin cannot control," Mr. Muhkin adds. "It was the collapse of the legal central state in Kiev that brought this on, and hopefully that's the issue that will be addressed now."
Other analysts suggest that eastern Ukraine's rebels, in holding off the Ukrainian army for months, have made Moscow's point without any need to risk direct Russian intervention.
"Putin has plenty of options to destabilize Ukraine. It's clear now that doesn't need to face the wrath of the West, and ramped up sanctions, in order to get what he wants," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. "It's very unlikely that peace will take hold in eastern Ukraine. These insurgents have already done the job of making sure Russia will have lots of leverage there, so why would Putin need to use the Russian army?"