Can Putin pull back from the brink?

Bill Gertz is reporting that Russian troops are massing on the borders of southern and eastern Ukraine, putting them in position to come to the assistance of pro-Russian provinces.

Russian military forces continued massing within six miles of Ukraine’s eastern border regions as tensions increased over Moscow’s so far bloodless attempt to take control of the country by force under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians.

In Kiev, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis said the massing of Russian forces near Ukraine’s eastern border appeared to be preparation for a military invasion, Ukraine’s Unian news agency reported.

Border troops reported Russian forces massing near borders in the Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions.

“Those actions taken by representatives of the Russian state authorities may be evidence that Russia is preparing for a possible invasion on Ukrainian territory through its land border with Ukraine,” Perebiynis said.

Few details were available on troop movements but reports from the region indicated that nine convoys of armored vehicles were observed near the Russian border of Kharkiv, and five armored troop carriers were spotted less than two miles from the border in Donetsk. Military forces also were reported near the Luhansk administrative region.

So far, no land incursions have been reported.

“We are conducting permanent monitoring. It is true that there are [armed forces] deployed in the regions [bordering Ukraine]. They started exercises a week ago, and they are moving through their own territory. They haven’t come close to the national border,” Miron Sydor, head of the Border Guard’s Eastern Regional Department, told Interfax.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh said about 16,000 Russian troops currently are on Ukrainian territory. They include 5,500 special operations troops that were recently added to the troops based and recently transported to a Russian base in Crimea.

A Pentagon spokesman had no comment on the Russian troop movements.

But could this be a bluff? A consensus is emerging among western analysts that Putin has blundered by invading the Crimea. Time Magazaine cites several compelling reasons for this thinking:

At home, this intervention looks to be one of the most unpopular decisions Putin has ever made. The Kremlin’s own pollster released a survey on Monday that showed 73% of Russians reject it. In phrasing its question posed in early February to 1,600 respondents across the country, the state-funded sociologists at WCIOM were clearly trying to get as much support for the intervention as possible: “Should Russia react to the overthrow of the legally elected authorities in Ukraine?” they asked. Only 15% said yes — hardly a national consensus.

Even Putin's strongest supporters, the nationalists, oppose his Crimea adventure by a wide margin.

The economic impact on Russia is already staggering. When markets opened on Monday morning, investors got their first chance to react to the Russian intervention in Ukraine over the weekend, and as a result, the key Russian stock indexes tanked by more than 10%. That amounts to almost $60 billion in stock value wiped out in the course of a day, more than Russia spent preparing for last month’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, which accounts for roughly a quarter of Russian tax revenue, lost $15 billion in market value in one day — incidentally the same amount of money Russia promised to the teetering regime in Ukraine in December and then revoked in January as the revolution took hold.

The value of the Russian currency meanwhile dropped against the dollar to its lowest point on record, and the Russian central bank spent $10 billion on the foreign-exchange markets trying to prop it up. “This has to fundamentally change the way investors and ratings agencies view Russia,” said Timothy Ash, head of emerging-market research at Standard Bank. At a time when Russia’s economic growth was already stagnating, “this latest military adventure will increase capital flight, weaken Russian asset prices, slow investment and economic activity and growth. Western financial sanctions on Russia will hurt further,” Ash told the Wall Street Journal.

As much as the west has stumbled around looking for an effective response to Putin's aggression, it is the fact that the Russian economy is in freefall that may affect the Russian president more.

Russia’s isolation from the West will deepen dramatically. In June, Putin was planning to welcome the leaders of the G-8, a club of Western powers (plus Japan), in the Russian resort city of Sochi. But on Sunday, all of them announced they had halted their preparations for attending the summit in protest at Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. So much for Putin’s hard-fought seat at the table with the leaders of the Western world.

This is a prestige item for Putin, who craves international respect and recognition. The possibility that the G-8 will become the G-7 when they kick Russia out would be a blow to Putin's self-image.

The downside for Putin suggests that he would want to resolve the crisis as quickly as possible. But Putin may not be in a rational frame of mind, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel told President Obama. that the Russian president had "lost touch with reality" and was in "another world." If true, Putin might convince himself that his only way out was a war with Ukraine - something that would make his position even more uncomfortable both at home and abroad.

If you experience technical problems, please write to