MOSCOW, Russia -- When he speaks about Ukraine at all these days, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia focuses on worthy subjects like humanitarian aid, distinctly lowering the flame underneath the political speech that erupted with the annexation of Crimea in March.
That shift over the past few weeks has led Kremlin analysts to conclude that Russia has started playing a waiting game with its once closest neighbor.
The economic, political and military costs of any abrupt, armed action to keep Ukraine — or even parts of it — in Moscow’s orbit were deemed far too high.
Even the sort of indirect support that NATO and Kiev accuse the Kremlin of providing to the separatists seems to be falling into disfavor.
But that does not mean that Moscow has abandoned its many goals in Ukraine, and it raises the question of whether the West will continue to allow the clock to tick away while Putin and his lieutenants pursue them.
They want to ensure that Ukraine does not join NATO, and that the country is kept as weak and decentralized as possible.
And they would like to extract Russia from the mess while claiming victory in protecting the rights and the lives of millions of Russian speakers in southeastern Ukraine.
In addition, Putin would like to find new allies in Kiev who will pursue renewed political and economic ties, particularly given Moscow’s reliance on Ukraine for military equipment that will take two or three years to replace.
Finally, Moscow wants to limit any economic fallout from the association agreement Kiev just signed with the European Union.
Ukraine is nearly broke.
With the West unlikely to pay the staggering costs needed to right Ukraine’s economy, Moscow expects Kiev will have to find a way to restore its longstanding ties with Russia, analysts noted.
In particular, it needs to reach an agreement with Moscow on natural gas supplies, now cut off, before temperatures start dropping in November.
Russia also could use a deal over water, electricity and other supplies that used to flow to Crimea from Ukraine.
“The main goal from the beginning has been to create the conditions so that Western structures — above all NATO — would not widen their range to include Ukraine,” said Sergei A. Karaganov, dean of the School of International Economics and Foreign Affairs and an occasional Kremlin consultant.
“That has been achieved.”
“Russia is now looking for an excuse to cool down the crisis and to restore some relationship with the West,” while leaving Ukraine weak, he said.
“It will be unified one way or another — a weak state with a crumbling economy — that is inevitable.”
The situation remains volatile, however.
With Russian-backed separatists vowing to make a last stand in Donetsk and Luhansk, Moscow could still end up in a military conflict.
Europe and the United States are split on the strategy going forward.
Some in Washington are demanding tougher action against Russia immediately.
But Europe is working the diplomatic front, with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, François Hollande, frequently consulting with Putin and the Ukrainian president, Petro O. Poroshenko, by telephone.
Putin is to meet with Ms. Merkel on Sunday in Brazil during the closing ceremony for the World Cup, which he will attend as the leader of the host of the next games, in 2018.
Putin’s five-day tour of Latin America begins Friday in Cuba, Russia’s staunchest regional ally, before he heads to Argentina and Brazil.
Perhaps most important, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Putin will attend a summit meeting of the leaders of the so-called BRICS countries in the Brazilian coastal city of Fortaleza.
The group — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — is expected to announce the formation of a new development bank, seen as an alternative to Western-dominated structures.
Russia is also looking for new military cooperation agreements in America’s backyard.
Two or three months ago, with Crimea already annexed and 40,000 Russian soldiers deployed along the border, it seemed that Moscow was just waiting to light the fuse in Ukraine.
But then came the first round of Western sanctions.
They targeted a few dozen people in Russia and Ukraine, as well as their businesses, and had little direct economic impact.
Psychologically, however, they made the world business community extremely wary.
Russia’s central bank announced Wednesday that capital flight had amounted to $75 billion in the first six months of 2014.
Although Russia has not fallen into recession as some predicted, the economy is stagnant.
For example, car sales are likely to drop 12 percent this year, a trade group announced this week.
In late June, with the threat of more Western sanctions looming unless Russia brought calm to southeastern Ukraine, the public discourse suddenly shifted, with Putin playing the statesman.
Over the past week, he has remained silent even as Ukrainian forces were routing pro-Russian separatists from their stronghold in Slavyansk and threatening further attacks.
On state-run television, more moderate voices have replaced those demanding armed intervention in Ukraine.
“We somewhat overdid our coverage of the events,” Yevgeny Primakov, a former prime minister and foreign minister known for his anti-Western sentiments since Soviet days, said on Rossiya 24 television.
“The general tone was such as if we were preparing the country for war.”
Primakov said that Russia needed peace to preserve essential ties.
“If we had deployed our troops, this would have led to a sharp deterioration of the situation in Ukraine, as well as of our relations with the West, which must be maintained,” he said.
Public opinion has shifted seemingly in lock step.
A poll at the end of June showed that 66 percent of Russians said the country’s troops should not enter Ukraine’s territory, according to a state-run pollster known by its initials, WCIOM.
That was similar to the result of a poll taken before Crimea’s annexation.
In fact, separatist leaders were openly criticized, signaling that Russia doubts they can win.
When Igor Strelkov, the Russian who commands the separatists, accused Moscow on his blog of “abandoning” his forces, he was attacked.
A front-page analysis that appeared July 7 in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, for example, noted that Moscow did “everything right” in terms of annexing Crimea and then avoiding military conflict in the rest of Ukraine.
“It was obvious from the very beginning that Donetsk and Luhansk were not Crimea,” wrote the analyst, Mikhail Rostovsky.
“A decision to do something similar with southeast Ukraine would have been complete insanity and guaranteed the most monstrous consequences.”
Some in the United States say that Putin is trying to fool the world while still pursuing territorial gain.
“Putin doesn’t have to win today,” Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in hearings on Ukraine on Wednesday.
“He only needs to generate a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine that he can exploit when the world has moved on. And that has been a standard operating procedure for years.”
The question has also been raised about whether Putin, after stoking nationalist sentiment for months, can suddenly pull the plug without facing backlash at home.
But the waiting game will also take care of that, analysts noted, especially with Putin’s approval rating staying over 80 percent.
The bellicose propaganda message has already largely gone.
“You make it disappear,” said Konstantin von Eggert, an independent political analyst, predicting that there will be no consequences “as long as it can be explained that we scored our point.”
Source: The New York Times