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Putin can still back down from war with Ukraine without looking weak — but will he?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin looks through the scope as he shoots a Chukavin sniper rifle (SVC-380) during a visit to the military Patriot Park in Kubinka, outside Moscow, on September 19, 2018.
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY | AFP | Getty Images

Tensions between Russia and the West remain high after the U.S. refused to cede to President Vladimir Putin‘s demands, but analysts say it’s not too late for him to back down from a military confrontation with Ukraine.

The world is awaiting Russia’s response after Washington refused to bow to Moscow’s demands over Ukraine, including that the country is never admitted to NATO, and that the military alliance’s deployments in Eastern Europe are rolled back.

While Russia considers its next move, there remain heightened concerns that Putin could be poised to give Russian troops a greenlight to invade Ukraine.

Despite insisting repeatedly that it has no plans to launch a military incursion, Russia has stationed around 100,000 troops at various locations along its border with Ukraine, as well as massing troops inside neighboring Belarus — its ally — as well.

There have been scores of diplomatic talks between Russian and Western officials in recent weeks aimed at breaking a deadlock over Ukraine and dialing down the potential for a military confrontation, but so far it is unclear which side will blink first.

How far Putin will go — and whether he will back down — when Russia’s pride and geopolitical interests are at stake (or at least seen to be in Moscow) is uncertain.

Putin can back down, if he wants

Putin is known for his strongman image in Russia, and with the oppression of opposition figures and independent media, the Kremlin is able to control the domestic narrative when it comes to the president.

As such, analysts say that Putin has room to maneuver without losing face, but only if he chooses to do so.

Maximilian Hess, fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told CNBC that, “yes, Putin has cultivated a strongman image, but he has sufficient control of the image and narrative-setting ability that means de-escalation will not be perceived as weakness by the majority of the Russian public.”

Ironically, Hess argued, the more military hardware that NATO deploys to eastern Europe, and the more the West threatens Russia with sanctions, the harder it is for Putin to backtrack.

“Putin can still back down without major domestic repercussions, though the more material the West commits to Eastern Europe in general does arguably make it somewhat harder,” he said.

“Major new sanctions would also make it far more difficult, and less desirable from Putin’s point of view, though so far the West has stressed these will be a response to Russian action, not pre-emptive (the argument gets more complex around Nord Stream 2 of course).”

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin sits in his office in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence during a bilateral meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping (on the video screen) via a video call.
Mikhail Metzel | TASS | Getty Images

Hess added that they could be “elite constituencies” within Russia’s military and intellectual far right that prefer war with Ukraine, “but Putin’s system is fairly resilient to policy disagreements among the elite.”

Unsurprisingly, the West’s faith in Russia is very low given its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and support for pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region in east of the country, a move which has further fomented distrust.

Many analysts believe that a smaller incursion in the Donbas region by Russia is possible — or even likely. This would both save face and destabilize Ukraine, while potentially gaining pro-Russian territory. Hess said an attempted annexation of the Donbas was his baseline scenario.

“I think Putin can respond to a breakdown in talks or other ‘negative’ policy outcome (from the Kremlin’s point of view) by limiting major action to the Donbas without prompting the more dramatic sanctions responses the West has laid out,” Hess said.

Little appetite for war

Ostensibly, Russia’s goals are to maintain its sphere of influence over former Soviet states and to stop an eastward expansion of the Western military alliance NATO. Russia says it has no intention of invading Ukraine and just wants to protect its own security interests.

Putin has described the fall of the Soviet Union as one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century and has extolled the unity of Russia and Ukraine, emphasizing the two countries’ shared historical, linguistic and cultural ties.

This apparent “closeness” of the two countries could be a reason why there appears to be little appetite for war among the Russian public.

“There was no societal demand for Putin to play as rough as he does to begin with … there was no demand for escalation at all — so any de-escalation would be welcomed by Russians,” Anton Barbashin, editorial director of Russian affairs journal Riddle, told CNBC on Monday.

“It goes without saying that official rhetoric and media can make almost any resolution of the conflict a victory for Putin, so it would not challenge his position at home substantially, at least among the Russian public,” he noted.

However, Barbashin noted that there was a schism between a Russian public reluctant to see a war with Ukraine (particularly if it could lead to “Russian boys” dying during any confrontation) and the military and conservative elites in Russia.

“For the military and generally Russia’s conservative elites, backing down now would not make sense none of the major goals have been reached. They tend to expect Putin to continue to stay firm or even up the ante,” he said.

Hess agreed that, unlike the build-up to the 2014 annexation of Crimea when Russian public sentiment supported an incursion, this time round there had been less anti-Ukraine propaganda.

“I don’t think the Russian public is baiting for war, nor has the Kremlin propaganda focused on demonizing Ukrainians to anywhere near the same extent as it did in 2014, even if it remains very hostile to the government in Kyiv,” Hess noted.

‘Step back from the brink’

For now, the world is left guessing how Putin will react to the U.S.’ responses to Russia’s demands, hand-delivered to the Kremlin last week by the U.S. ambassador in Moscow. While the exact details of the U.S.’ response to Russia was not published, it was met with a frosty response in Moscow.

Nonetheless, both sides continue to talk. U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken is due to speak with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday, while other Western leaders also look to persuade Putin to dial down tensions this week. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday he would tell Putin to “step back from the brink” over Ukraine when the two leaders speak later this week.

Not everyone believes Putin is ready to roll over when it comes to Ukraine, however.

Ian Bremmer, founder and director of Eurasia Group, said he believes Putin is prepping the Russian public for an incursion by demonizing the Ukraine and the West.

“Putin controls the narrative at home (especially given power of state media), so it’s not a really a question of what he can sell,” told CNBC on Monday. ” But this also makes it easier for him to make the decision to escalate — he’s convinced Russians that war is coming and it’s all the fault of Ukraine and NATO.”

Bremmer said that Putin would lose credibility on a global stage if he backs down, particularly among certain quarters, such as countries traditionally allied with Russia.

For this reason, he said, “it’s important for Putin to have escalatory options that aren’t just about invading Ukraine.” These could include sending a permanent military presence and nuclear weapons to Belarus, “or even establishing bases in the Western hemisphere (Cuba, Venezuela) as the deputy foreign minister has suggested,” Bremmer added.

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