The Russian military announced that some troops had begun returning to their bases from the Ukrainian border, though Nato said there was no sign of de-escalation on the ground. The Russian parliament voted in favour of recognizing the separatists in eastern Ukraine, though Vladimir Putin indicated that he would not do so yet. At a press conference with the German chancellor, Mr Putin said that he was ready to go down the track of negotiations, though past experience suggests that little the Kremlin says should be believed.
It is incontrovertible, however, that Mr Putin has tested the West’s resolve and found it wanting. Whatever happens in the next few days, the EU’s pretensions to having a foreign policy role have been exposed as baseless. European leaders have been hopelessly split, with some favouring a policy tantamount to appeasement of Moscow and others seeking to support Ukraine’s right to self-determination. The United States has been rhetorically robust but has been prepared to do little apart from warn of devastating sanctions in the event of an invasion – sanctions that the Kremlin claims not to fear.
Nevertheless, even now, Mr Putin can claim to have won a victory of sorts. Aside from splitting the West, there seems to be no prospect of Ukraine joining Nato in the foreseeable future. Kyiv has seen how little its allies are really prepared to do to support it, and its economy has been further damaged by the fear of war.
The irony is that Mr Putin is not as strong as he purports to be. His nation is declining economically and demographically compared with the rest of the world. His aggression has had the effect of pushing several of his neighbours closer to the West. It is only the strength of the Russian military, alongside the Kremlin’s reckless disregard for international norms, that forces the democratic world to take him seriously.
Worse, there seem to be few signs that anyone is willing to fix the vulnerabilities that have enabled Mr Putin to intimidate the West. Nord Stream 2 is still set to open. Nato members are still investing too little in their own defence. Western publics still lack the stomach for a confrontation with the forces of authoritarianism. Even if conflict is averted now, what is to stop the Kremlin trying this trick all over again? At present, not very much.