Russian President Vladimir Putin remains undecided about whether to expand the war in Ukraine, American officials believe, as a fusillade of aggressive rhetoric has set the stage for a suspense-filled holiday season.
Putin sent mixed signals Thursday, as he claimed that U.S. and European powers aspire to orchestrate a breakup of the Russian state but also allowed that recent diplomatic exchanges have been “positive.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg plans to convene a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in January, but Russia’s aggressive posture spurred a series of conversations Thursday between U.S. and European officials who hope that the threat of economic sanctions will deter a conflict.
“We are continuing to watch closely Russia's alarming movement of forces and deployments along the border with Ukraine,” a senior administration official said Thursday. “It is not our sense that a decision is made at this point, but that's a better question for the Russians than for us.”
“Putin is a politician that sometimes behaves as if he was a poker player; he uses all the psychological tricks in the book, and then adds a few that haven’t made it into the book before,” Germany’s Reinhard Butikofer, a senior member of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Washington Examiner in an interview this week. “We cannot take the decisions on his behalf of what to do, but we can tell him what risks he's going to incur.”
RUSSIA THREATENS WAR UNLESS US ABANDONS EASTERN NATO ALLIES
President Joe Biden’s team reiterated those threats Thursday. “If Russia goes ahead with what may be underway, we and our allies are prepared to impose severe costs that would damage Russia's economy and bring about exactly what it says it does not want: more NATO capabilities, not less; closer to Russia, not further away,” the senior administration official said.
Putin, for his part, adopted the pose of a beleaguered victim, claiming that Western officials have wanted to partition Russia into several countries for more than a century and have nurtured this desire in the decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“In their opinion, Russia is too big today. Because the European countries themselves turned into smaller states,” Putin said, per Russian state media. “Not great empires but small countries, 60-80 mln people. Yet even after the fall of the USSR where we have only 146 mln left it is still too much. It seems to me, such constant pressure can only be explained by this.”
Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and sent Russian forces without flags into the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine while portraying the subsequent violence in those districts as a civil war. The conflict has evoked comparisons to the 2008 invasion of Georgia, which ended with Putin recognizing the independence of two regions seized by Russian forces. More recently, Russian officials have demanded that NATO promise never to allow Ukraine or Georgia to join the alliance, saying that their membership would violate “the principle of indivisible security” at Russia’s expense.
“If Mr. Stoltenberg thinks that NATO members can brush off this principle ... he should indeed look for a new job, because he is clearly underperforming in his current position,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told state media.
Butikofer declined to say how Western officials would respond if Putin tried to expand Russian-controlled territory around Donbas rather than launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But he rejected Russian demands, in any case.
“This was a message which denied Ukraine the right to exist as an independent nation, and whether he goes about that in one fell swoop or if he pursues a salami-slicing approach, that's not the main issue,” the German politician said. “The main issue is that we are set to defend Ukraine's independence as Russia has guaranteed in the past.”
Lavrov, setting aside the polemics, acknowledged that some “business-like” conversations between U.S. and Russian officials have taken place and forecast a more formal diplomatic meeting next year.
“It has been agreed that the first round early next year should be bilateral contact between the American negotiators and our own,” Lavrov said. "They have been named, and they are acceptable to both parties. After that, we plan to use the negotiating platform to discuss the second document — the draft Russia-NATO agreement — in the foreseeable future, preferably in January.”
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Butikofer surmised that Putin will look for an exit ramp, despite his truculent rhetoric. “I still believe that he's not a person that would go to war just because he has been threatening war,” he said. “I think — I hope — he's rational enough to understand that the price that would be imposed on himself, the Russian system, and Russia would be huge.”