It is too early to predict if Russia might be looking for a safe exit on Ukraine, but there can be little doubt that it is fashioning a bylane. The first hints of it came soon after the devastating Odessa fire, when Russia pleaded that it had lost its influence on pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine. As demonstrable proof, Vladimir Putin can now hold up the rebuff by eastern Ukraine, which refused to heed his request for a postponement of a referendum on a separation from Ukraine. Mr Putin has also hinted that he is not averse to scaling down the crisis by offering to withdraw troops from the border and giving his nod to Ukraine’s presidential elections of May 25 that he was dead against only days ago. The good boy act may not be difficult for Mr Putin because it doubles his advantages while minimizing his risks. Russia’s distancing from the rebels allows it the opportunity to deny its responsibility for the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine. His support for the presidential elections, which might not take place at all if eastern Ukraine remains in turmoil, also makes it difficult for the Western powers to justify an increase of sanctions against Russia. Meanwhile, the fact that Mr Putin has not taken back his guarantee to stand by Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine in case of increased State violence or any other discriminatory act allows Russia to retain its role as saviour.
The reason for Mr Putin’s change of stance has perhaps more to do with the internal dynamics in Russia than the pressure of either international opinion or the fear of more international sanctions. The Ukraine crisis has given Mr Putin and his clique a unique opportunity to surmount their domestic troubles that came in the form of street protests against corruption and authoritarianism. It has re-established Mr Putin as the arbiter of Russia’s destiny by rekindling national pride and brought back the public support he seemed to be losing in the months that followed the Arab Spring when he took back the presidency from Dmitry Medvedev. A military adventure that is bound to prove costly to the Russian population could undo all that. Hence, Mr Putin’s sudden interest in diplomacy. The world powers should seize this chance, as Germany seems to have done by proposing a reconciliation process in Ukraine that Russia may not object to. Whatever the outcome, Russia trusts its shadow players in Ukraine to protect its interests without forcing Russia’s hand.