Is Putin Making a First Move to De-Escalate?

| Mon Mar. 3, 2014 11:23 AM EST

From the LA Times:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has agreed to a German proposal for international observers to review the tense standoff in Ukraine’s Crimea area, a Kremlin news service dispatch indicated Monday.

The proposal for a “contact group” of mediating foreign diplomats and an observer delegation to assess Moscow’s claims that ethnic Russians are threatened with violence under Ukraine’s new leadership was made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a late Sunday phone call to Putin, her spokesman told journalists in Berlin on Monday.

Is this for real, or is it just a stalling tactic? There's no telling, of course. But I wouldn't be surprised if it's at least semi-real, since it could provide a convenient excuse to call a halt to things. And that's something Putin probably wants. I don't know what his long-term plans in Crimea are, but I doubt that he has any appetite for a military incursion into the rest of Ukraine. That's not because he's voluntarily showing a sense of restraint. It's because Russia just doesn't have the military to pull it off. A few thousand troops in South Ossetia or Crimea is one thing, but even a minimal military presence in eastern Ukraine would be orders of magnitude more difficult and expensive. Unless Putin has truly gone around the bend and is willing to risk another Afghanistan or another Chechnya, that's just not in the cards.

A lot of American pundits are pretty cavalier about Russia's military capabilities, assuming they can do anything they want simply because Putin is such a tough guy. But it's just not so. The Russian military might be up to an intervention in eastern Ukraine, but it would take pretty much everything they have. This is not the Red Army of old.

It's also the case that although Putin may put on a brave show, he's well aware that intervention in Ukraine would unite the West against him in no uncertain terms. Those same pundits who are so cavalier about Russian military strength are also far too willing to take Putin's bravado at face value. That's a mistake. He doesn't want Russia cut off from the West, and neither do his oligarch buddies. He may be willing to pay a price for his incursion into Crimea, but he's not willing to keep paying forever. As long as Western pressure continues to ratchet up, at some point he'll start looking for a way out.