Did Putin just bring Russia in from the cold?

In a security meeting today, Putin said Russia would try to rein in Ukraine's rebels. He also effectively told media and politicians that the country is not under Western siege – and to stop repeating that claim.

Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/RIA Novosti/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives for a meeting of the Security Council in the Kremlin, Moscow, today.

Vladimir Putin opened a special meeting of the Kremlin's Security Council today with an odd statement: "There is no direct military threat to our country’s sovereignty or territorial integrity at present," he said.

To a Western ear, that might sound like belaboring the obvious. For a Russian audience today, it's a jarring note for their leader to strike.

Mr. Putin's statement flatly contradicts what the domestic media have been saying for months. Just days ago, Russian outlets were warning of a White House "offensive against Russia and China," with the US trying to create "instability on Russia's borders." Putin himself earlier this month claimed that Russia's annexation of Crimea was to forestall NATO from getting a foothold in Ukraine.

"If you've been reading the Russian press and watching TV over the past few months you would have gotten an entirely different impression," that the country was in a state of emergency and facing imminent peril, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based foreign policy journal "Russia in Global Affairs." 

Russian experts say that Putin's sudden reversal is a clear sign he is looking to ratchet down the domestic anxieties and anti-Western attitudes that have been rife since the Ukraine crisis erupted about five months ago. And perhaps most significantly, it's time to end the siege mentality.

"Domestically, he's calling that off," Mr. Lukyanov says. "His core message to the West seems to be that we are ready to be flexible. Russia is in no mood to escalate the confrontation, and it's possible we could do some deal on non-recognition of the Ukrainian insurgents," he adds.

Changing course

Russia has been facing growing isolation, and escalating threats of sanctions, due to its alleged support for east Ukraine's anti-Kiev insurgency. That has shifted into high gear since the downing of Malaysian flight MH17 last Thursday, which increasingly looks to have been done by Russian-backed Ukrainian rebels.

But Putin today pointed out that Russia supports a full independent investigation of the accident. Moreover, he added the intriguing suggestion that Moscow might be ready to use its leverage on the rebels if there is a serious peace process.

"We are urged to exert influence on the self-defense fighters of the southeast. Let me repeat again, we’ll of course do everything that is in our power," he said. "But that won't be enough."

That looks like Putin is looking for ways to extricate Russia from its messy involvement in post-revolutionary Ukraine, and particularly the increasingly out-of-control eastern rebels, says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a Moscow-based media consultancy.

"All attempts to support rebellion in eastern Ukraine have failed. There is no small victorious war down there," just a growing disaster, he says. "I think Putin wants to be rid of that, and concentrate all Russia's political efforts on defending its annexation of Crimea last March. Basically, this is an effort by Putin to save face," he adds.

Among other things, Putin stressed that Russia is a reliable business partner, one that wishes to be part of the global community and will "never turn to isolationism."  He voiced greater confidence than he has in the past that Russia is immune to the kind of "colored revolution" that has led in the past decade to disorderly power shifts in next-door post-Soviet states, primarily Georgia and Ukraine. And he even seemed to pledge a halt in the Kremlin's crackdown on liberal opponents and civil society activists who have been actively targeted by a raft of new laws as agents of "foreign" influence.

Plan A or Plan B?

Since annexing Crimea, Putin has enjoyed public approval ratings of over 80 percent. "The fact that he mentioned the threat of 'colored revolution' is an indication of his [ongoing] fears," says Boris Makarenko, chairman of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "But, in practical terms, a leader with over 65 percent public rating isn't facing a realistic threat of revolution."

But with serious economic sanctions looming, and Russia's economy already stagnating, Putin is probably exploring a "Plan A" that would involve rolling back tensions with the West, helping to broker a political settlement in Ukraine, and easing the political crackdown at home, says Gleb Pavolovsky, a former member of Putin's inner circle who has since turned critic.

"Most of Putin's speech was directed at an internal audience, and leaving aside his worries about 'colored revolutions' it was mostly an appeal to reason," he says.

It was primarily a message for all the various factions around Putin to drop their differences and get behind disengagement in Ukraine and conciliation with the West, because the only alternative – "Plan B" – is something very few members of the Russian elite would actually want: "That would be to close the doors and accept a state of maximum isolation for Russia," Mr. Pavlovsky says.

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