The public Western response to Russian President Vladimir Putin rattling the cage with Ukraine last week has been reasonably unified. All the statements released over the course of the weekend, from Paris, Washington, and Brussels, have urged that cooler heads prevail, have reiterated that Crimea belongs to Ukraine and is currently being occupied by Russia, and have all pointed to the Minsk Agreement was the only way forward for negotiations.
That last part about Minsk was critical, as it appeared from Putin’s statement last week that he was interested in pushing the West to renegotiate some kind of new agreement, possibly without Kyiv at the table. As of today, the Kremlin seems to have climbed down a bit. Here’s Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, speaking after meeting his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier:
“We analyzed the prospects for a possible revival of talks in the Normandy format,” Lavrov said, referring to negotiations around the Minsk deal which Putin has said were not worth having for the time being.
“I don’t think we’re now in a situation when someone is interested in cutting diplomatic ties (between Russia and Ukraine),” said Lavrov. “That’s an extreme measure and it seems to me that the main thing is not to give into emotions or extreme scenarios, but to act with restraint and focus on stabilizing the situation.”
It’s further notable that Lavrov said that ties with Kyiv would not be cut, as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had hazarded that the Kremlin might countenance doing just that late last week. (Of course, Medvedev is largely irrelevant to the Kremlin’s decision-making, doubly so in the realm of foreign policy.)
Tensions remain high in Ukraine, of course, as both sides have sizable forces facing each other near Crimea and in the Donbas, both on high alert. Lavrov’s rhetoric, however, suggests that Putin’s move last week was more a ratcheting up of tensions rather than a prelude to invasion.
Of course, a miscalculation or an accident could still kick off a nasty little fight in Ukraine’s south and east. But hopefully it won’t come to that.