MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin, faced with rising violence in southeastern Ukraine that threatened to draw in the Russian army at great cost and prompt severe new Western economic sanctions, pressed pause on Wednesday in what had started to look like an inevitable march toward war.
But it remained unclear to analysts and political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic whether he was truly reversing course on Ukraine or whether this was just another of his judo-inspired feints.
Using a far less ominous tone than in previous remarks about Ukraine, Putin said at a news conference at the Kremlin that Russia had withdrawn the troops menacing Ukraine from along the border and that he had asked separatists to drop plans for a referendum on sovereignty this Sunday. Russia would even accept Ukraines presidential election on May 25, he said, if demands for autonomy from the countrys east were recognized.
Putin said Russia wanted to spur mediation efforts spearheaded by the Europeans. He said that he did not know whether talks between the warring sides in Ukraine were realistic but that he was determined to give them a chance, in particular a suggestion from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany that the various factions engage in a round-table discussion.
I simply believe that if we want to find a long-term solution to the crisis in Ukraine, open, honest and equal dialogue is the only possible option, he said.
Reaction in the West
While Western governments welcomed Putins apparent about-face, there was also abundant skepticism, based in part on his record in Crimea. Putin repeatedly denied that Russias soldiers were involved in the region, only to admit later that they were.
A White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama aboard Air Force One that while the U.S. would welcome a Russian military pullback, there has been no evidence that such a withdrawal has taken place. NATO officials confirmed that Wednesday, saying they saw no troop movements.
Senior British officials also reacted warily to Putins announcement, noting that he had once before announced a sizable troop withdrawal from the border, in a phone call with Merkel, but moved only one battalion a modest distance. One official said that satellite photos that would better verify Putins assertions would take some time to come through.
Nevertheless, British officials regarded Putins comments as positive. They suggested that he wants to avoid a larger economic confrontation with the U.S. and the European Union and that some of the concerns of Russian businessmen may finally be getting through to the tight circle around Putin.
Putins possible motives
While the world was caught off guard by Putins sudden peace offensive, analysts in Moscow cited several robust military, economic and political reasons he might be inclined to switch tracks.
First, there has been an increasing sense here, as elsewhere, that conditions in Ukraine were rapidly approaching the situation in Yugoslavia in 1991, when the former Soviet satellite broke into pieces. The violence among various factions was creating facts on the ground, they said, that nobody could predict or manage.
Paradoxically, some added, this dynamic was nurtured in large part by round-the-clock reports on Russian state television that Ukraine was heaving with violence instigated primarily by neo-fascist cells emanating from western Ukraine. But with the notable exception of about 40 deaths in riots last week in Odessa, far from the separatist hotbeds of Slovyansk and Donetsk, the violence was mostly confined to small skirmishes.
There were worrying signs that was changing, however.
The problem is that in all these types of conflicts, once the black swans have started to fly, you will never control the situation, said Sergei A. Karaganov, dean of the School of International Economics and Foreign Affairs at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow and a periodic adviser to the Kremlin on foreign policy.
In modern international relations and finance, black swans refer to random, unexpected events with unforeseeable consequences. Law and order was beginning to fall apart, and more and more groups were fighting each other, Karaganov said.
The other reasons follow a certain logic. Putin wants to shape Ukraines future, but an invasion of Ukraine by the Russian army would be wildly expensive, bloody and unpredictable. Even a nominally successful invasion could breed an insurgency in the east by pro-Ukrainian militants, while the partition of the country would stick Russia with a failed state in southeast Ukraine that would take tens of billions to restructure.
It would also create an implacably anti-Russian and pro-European state in western Ukraine that would most likely join NATO as fast as it could.
And an invasion would almost certainly galvanize the EU into joining the United States in imposing much tougher sanctions that might target entire sections of the Russian economy, like banking, energy or steel.
Danger of escalation
Analysts suggested that if eastern Ukraine were to vote in the referendum Sunday to join Russia, or for independence, or if they demanded Russian protection in some orchestrated way, Putin would be forced to react, given his past statements about Russias responsibility to ensure the safety of ethnic Russians beyond its borders.
The decision was taken not to increase Russian involvement in Ukraine, and not to increase the chances of major violence there, said Konstantin von Eggert, an independent political analyst and a commentator for Kommersant FM radio.
Most analysts believe that Putin wanted to avoid war, and say that a minor armed incursion into Ukraine would not have been enough to resolve the crisis. Instead, it could easily have developed into a long, bloody and expensive slog, bruising the reputation he gained from annexing Crimea with virtually no bloodshed.
This one would not have been bloodless, von Eggert said. This would have been a real war, not by stealth, not by new methods, but a real old-fashioned war, and this is something that Mr. Putin does not want.
New York Times writers Andrew Roth, C.J. Chivers, Noah Sneider, David M. Herszenhorn, Steven Erlanger and Alison Smale contributed.