Putin backs down
As Thomas Friedman observed this week in a widely-cited column, Putin has backed down. He has withdrawn Russian forces from the Ukrainian border and back to their bases. He declared last week that he would recognize the outcome of Ukraine's election on Sunday, though even then it was expected that the nationalist Poroshenko would win (and he did). Even as the Ukrainian government brought the full weight of its military into action to smash the "pro-Russian separatists" (actually Russian agents), killing dozens of them in the battle to recapture Donetsk airport alone, and Poroshenko declared that there will be no negotiation with "bandits", Putin has done nothing. He may manage to hold Crimea, but his effort to subvert and seize the rich industrial regions of eastern Ukraine seems to have been abandoned.
The only plausible explanation for this dramatic change in policy is the effectiveness of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and its allies. Powerful Russian oligarchs have felt serious threats to their personal wealth, while the Russian stock market and the value of the ruble have been battered. Beyond that, Europe has taken steps to reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels, undermining not only Putin's main economic counter-weapon against the West, but also a formerly-reliable source of revenue. Much publicity has attended Russia's recent gas deal with China, a substitute market -- but the prices agreed will mean a distinctly sub-par profit. Putin was wise to conclude that pursuing the seizure of eastern Ukraine was not worth the economic costs the West had shown itself able to exact.
It can't be coincidence, either, that just this week Obama delivered a much-commented speech at West Point declaring that, while the US must continue to lead the world and defend human rights and Western values, military force will play a smaller role in that leadership than it has done in the past, with "soft power" coming to the fore. The speech drew the expected attacks from Republicans who believe any American response to an international challenge is a failure unless it involves bombing the crap out of something -- but if American and European economic pressure can make a nation as mighty as Russia abandon military aggression, then the day of "soft power" has truly arrived.