Did Putin get what he wanted in latest round of sabre-rattling?

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Putin considers his next move
Putin considers his next move

As 100,000 troops trudge back to their barracks in Russia's heartlands one may be forgiven for thinking Vladimir Putin is in retreat.

But all is never as it seems in the forgotten war of attrition on the fringes of Europe.

Much reading of the tea leaves has taken place since Mr Putin, master of deception, moved columns of his armed forces close to the Ukraine border.

As they begin to slowly return, the Kremlin may feel it has got what it wanted out of the latest round of sabre-rattling.

Mr Putin has achieved three principal goals.

First, a phone call from US president Joe Biden, in which Mr Biden urged a de-escalation - an acknowledgement at least of Mr Putin's parade of firepower.

A Ukrainian serviceman stands near the front line with Russia backed separatists in the small town of Pisky, near Donetsk
A Ukrainian serviceman stands near the front line with Russia backed separatists in the small town of Pisky, near Donetsk

After heavy criticism from Mr Biden in the first weeks of his presidency, sending forces to the border was a warning: don't underestimate us.

“Russia was looking for ways to put pressure on the West, and it found it by threatening to stir up the hostilities in Ukraine - and it worked,” military analyst Alexander Golts said.

The day before Mr Putin pulled his troops out he warned the West of unspecified “red lines” and said it would come to regret crossing them as it “never regretted anything else before”.

The Biden phone call and the headlines that went with it point to the second goal of Mr Putin's threat of war: distraction.

The whole affair has offered the Kremlin a welcome diversion from the plight of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose deteriorating health has dominated Russian social media and indeed international news.

Now that Mr Putin’s nemesis has been examined by civilian doctors and Russians have let off the steam by rallying in his support on Wednesday, the Kremlin has some welcome breathing space. Mr Navalny's movement has lost momentum too.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy rushed to Ukraine's eastern front with Russia for a photo opportunity
Volodymyr Zelenskyy rushed to Ukraine's eastern front with Russia for a photo opportunity

Finally, the military build-up can be seen as a show of the ankle to Ukraine. Was this Moscow’s payback for Kyiv's growing assertiveness and its decision in March to shut down TV channels of a pro-Russian oligarch?

As fears recede, many argue that the menace of Mr Putin's troops was nothing more than a threat.

Several hundred armoured vehicles may now be stationed about 100 kilometres away from the border and could stay there at least until September, making some analysts nervous.

But in reality there is little domestic appetite for foreign policy forays. Russia’s swift and bloodless annexation of Crimea in 2014 sent Mr Putin’s approval ratings soaring but the Crimean euphoria has long worn off.

A few hours after the pull-back was announced, Mr Putin responded to an invitation from Ukraine's president to meet him in the war zone if he truly wanted to negotiate a peace deal.

Ever the troll, Mr Putin said that Volodymyr Zelensky was most welcome in Moscow - a meeting that would be a political suicide for any Ukrainian leader at this point.

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