In a shocking turnaround, Russian President Vladimir Putin claims to have pulled some 40,000 Russian troops from the Ukrainian border today. Now it’s up to the rest of the world to figure out what Putin is thinking and what his end game is.
The troops have been positioned at the border since the end of February when protestors forced Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych from office and into exile in Russia. After taking the Crimean peninsula, Putin has repeatedly threatened to send Russian troops into Ukraine to protect Russian-speaking residents.
Then today, out of the blue, Putin announced that the troops would retreat.
A Pentagon spokesman told The Times Wednesday, however, that they had seen no change in Russian troops at the border.
Putin also called for a delay to a referendum planned by pro-Russian protestors, which would have declared part of eastern Ukraine autonomous from Kiev.
It’s hard to predict the reasons for Putin’s action or what happens next. Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, he’s been the definition of unpredictable. No one thought he would invade Crimea after the success of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Until this morning, it seemed almost inevitable that Russian troops would enter Ukraine.
For now, that threat is remote. But this crisis is far from over, and it’s important to understand why Putin did what he did. Here are four possible reasons for the troops’ pullback.
1. It's all a power play and a warning to the west and the rest of the Soviet bloc. This all could have been a simple show of force to both the west and the former Soviet bloc. Putin shows that his military could mobilize quickly and seize territory with impunity while sending shockwaves through a complacent NATO and European defense establishment. If he had invaded Ukraine, the west conceded that they would do nothing to stop him. This could be Putin’s formal announcement of Russia’s return as an international power.
2. It's fake - he'll put them right back when something he doesn't like happens in Ukraine, perhaps the results of the elections. “Good old-fashioned Mohammad Ali rope-a-dope,” said Edward Goldberg, a professor at Baruch College and the New York University Center for Global Affairs, when asked what Putin was doing.
For instance, if Putin doesn’t like the results of the May 25 presidential election, troops could return to increase pressure at a time when Ukrainian political institutions are fragile.
3. The oligarchs told him to back off. It’s unlikely that the sanctions levied by the United States and Europe have had enough time to have a real impact on Putin; President Obama admitted that he was skeptical they would work at all.
But the oligarchs are likely feeling some pain. This, combined with the fact that a number of American businesses are sitting out the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum later this month, might have been enough to check Putin.
“Publicly he needs to back off because of the investors' conference in St Petersburg,” Goldberg said.
4. He realized it wasn’t worth it. Goldberg said that it’s anyone’s guess as to what Putin’s real motivations are. He added that he suspects the cost of Ukraine, both in terms of Russia’s international reputation and its economy, became too heavy.
“Privately one has no idea, but it could be that he realizes that there are no long-term gains here and possibly the economic pain is not worth it,” Goldberg said. “He made his point.”
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