Putin seizes world’s attention, forcing West to confront renewed Russian threat

One of the enduring images of the Ukraine crisis has been Russian President Vladimir Putin hosting a revolving door of Western leaders at the other end of a giant marble table.

Whether or not Putin invades his neighbor, he has undeniably got the attention of Europe and the Biden administration, whose hopes of focusing on China rather than on Russia have been dashed.

By threatening a full-scale invasion of a democratic European country, Russia has created a “new normal” on the continent, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week — one in which Moscow is willing and able to openly contest the region’s values and borders.

As he delivered the stark assessment that Putin has already ‘made the decision’ to attack Ukraine, President Joe Biden similarly said Friday that the Russian leader “is focused on trying to convince the world that he has the ability to change the dynamics in Europe.”

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But that’s not to say Putin is having it all his way, some officials and experts say. His implied threats have given a new purpose and vigor to NATO, with the transatlantic alliance broadly united in its condemnation of Moscow.

Allying a vast military buildup on Ukraine’s borders with bold security demands, the Kremlin has seized a new relevance but perhaps also given one to the Western alliance.

“Putin has an achievement under his belt by getting all this attention,” said James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London think tank.

“On the other hand, he has put himself in a very difficult position whereby he’s made a list of demands, and if he doesn’t get those met — and he won’t — then that will look like failure.”

The United States and some of its allies say they have rock-solid intelligence that war is imminent. That has drawn criticism in Kyiv and mockery in Moscow, which denies the 150,000-plus Russian troops clustered around Ukraine will be used in an assault on the former Soviet republic.

There is much for Putin to gain and lose whichever path he takes in the coming days.

Even if he holds back his troops, the mere threat of war has seen French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, to name a few, all hurry to Moscow in a bid to help defuse the crisis.

The efforts at diplomacy have produced some suggestions of common ground on more limited demands, including arms control and increased transparency on military exercises.

All this gives outsize influence to Russia, which has a gross domestic product smaller than that of Canada, a military budget dwarfed by that of NATO, and an international status long since faded from the hegemonic struggle of the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.

For Putin the stakes may be that existential, driven by a desire to stop Ukraine and his former Soviet neighbors from becoming more closely aligned with the democratic West.

The U.S. and others would rather focus on China and its real clout, which is only getting stronger.

“He got some attention which he feared to lose, especially from the United States because of the focus of the U.S. administration on China,” said Fabrice Pothier, a consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank.

“But once you have that face time, what do you do with it?”

All of that attention has not been without consequences.

Putin has galvanized NATO, which until this standoff was struggling for meaning and purpose after the Cold War.

In response to the Ukraine buildup, the alliance has deployed 5,000 troops to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. And it said Wednesday it was drawing up plans for deployments in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia, its biggest shift in posture since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

“He is getting plenty of attention all right — but not the kind he wishes,” according to retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army in Europe.

NATO is looking more united than at any time since 1995, Germany is looking to decrease its reliance on Moscow for natural gas, and Sweden and Finland are openly discussing joining the alliance, Hodges said. “This is entirely a manufactured crisis of the Kremlin‘s own doing.”

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