What does it mean if Putin chooses to let Ukraine’s army retake Donetsk and Luhansk without the Russian army intervening? This appears a possibility and some people are already saying this is what is happening. Some possible explanations.
- Putin saw he lacked the force to take or keep Ukraine. He decided it was better to take his loss and humiliation now rather than later.
- Western sanctions worked in convincing Putin he could not win.
- Phone calls from Western leaders had an impact and convinced Putin he could not succeed.
- Investigations of Russia’s spies and friends in the West started to accumulate and convinced Putin the West still had some integrity.
- Luhansk and Donetsk were just ploys to get acceptance of Crimea.
- Luhansk and Donetsk were options to see if Ukraine would collapse from a pin prick.
- Russia thought that Ukraine’s governing elite were so unpopular that the people would embrace Russia.
- Russia could have succeeded if it had invaded in the spring, but it frittered away its chance and lost its popularity in Ukraine.
- Putin never felt any obligation to his own men in Donetsk and Luhansk. He used them callously, imposing costs on the people as well.
- Putin accepts the basic framework of the existing order, but he engages in petty crimes within it. Taking Ukraine would be a major challenge, and he doesn’t go there. Stealing Crimea or shooting down an airplane, Boston Bombing, killing Berezovsky, pressuring professors and former academics are petty crimes he will engage in.
- Putin is purely opportunistic. He works as much as possible in secret. If he faces serious opposition he slinks away. If not he keeps advancing.
- Putin may have something else he is working on that he thinks is more worthwhile.
- Putin may intend to come back later.
- Putin may try to get another leader in Ukraine more to his liking before acting.
If Putin does abandon Donetsk and Luhansk, it does not mean he has become safe to ignore. Russia will try to get some other success to make up for it. Clandestine activity in and against Western countries may increase, perhaps after an initial pause to lie low and let us become distracted by the next headline, perhaps not.
Putin will find a way to be relevant and to remind us he is important. Our paying attention to him matters to him. That is why he stages extended shows like Snowden in Moscow airport, mysterious deaths like Litvinenko and possibly others, disappearing or shot down planes, and Ukraine. It is like a serial killer to some extent.
This is draft and preliminary. The above is hypotheses and speculation. Comments and corrections welcome. Please restate as questions. All other disclaimers apply.