Putin has hit the “pause” button on his invasion of Ukraine

My troops are where?
My troops are where?
Image: Reuters/Alexei Nikolskiy/RIA Novosti/Kremlin
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Russian soldiers fired shots in the air to stop unarmed Ukrainian troops attempting to go to their jobs on a Crimean base, but have so far halted short of enforcing their ultimatum for a surrender. Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin says he has pulled his army back from the Ukrainian border, and suggested that war is not imminent with Ukraine.

Putin seems to be taking stock of international and market reaction to his invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, the crisis has a surreal quality. Meeting reporters today at his suburban Moscow residence, Putin denied the presence of any Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil or that Moscow had played any role in prepping the thousands of uniformed gunmen who have methodically taken over Crimea. The markets, which had given Russia a beating yesterday, reacted favorably: Russia’s Micex stock index rebounded and the ruble strengthened. Putin claimed they were responding not to the Ukraine news but to actions by the US Federal Reserve.

All in all, the impression is that Putin is—at least temporarily—taken aback, either by Western actions to isolate him, or by the market slide, or both. In one of his more bizarre outbursts, he lashed out at the US and the West for embracing what he called anti-Semites in Kiev who had shot an unarmed engineer dead and burned another alive. “I think they sit there across the pond in the US, sometimes it seems … they feel like they’re in a lab and they’re running all sorts of experiments on rats without understanding consequences of what they’re doing,” Putin said.

Crimea is scheduled to hold a referendum on March 30 to decide its political status (though that it may happen earlier). Macro-Advisory’s Chris Weafer told Quartz that the partial market recovery does not reflect a belief that Putin is backing off ahead of the referendum. “It is more a case of relief that there has been no extension of the crisis and no immediate follow through. Everybody understands there are plenty of opportunities for the situation to worsen in the coming weeks and coming up to the [Crimea] referendum date. … For most investors Russia is an ‘avoid’ until the crisis ends.”

In Crimea itself, there was no doubt that Russia now regards Crimea—Ukrainian territory since 1954—as its own. Beyond the thousands of Russian troops who fanned out across the peninsula, there was the ultimatum issued by a fleet commander for Ukrainian forces to surrender their bases by 5 am. Russian soldiers visited Ukrainian bases in Crimea and tried the soft touch, including offers of a job in the Russian armed forces for Ukrainian troops who defected. But if they refused, they were told to leave within 24 hours—or else. As the hours wore on through this morning, Ukrainian soldiers threw wood on fires and said they would hold their ground.

On Monday, the US said that the ultimatum, if put into effect, would be “a dangerous escalation of the situation.” If the Russian offensive in Ukraine proceeds, the US plans to block visas and assets for responsible Russian officials. Already, the Pentagon announced a suspension of military ties with Moscow, including exercises and planned meetings. As the deadline passed, US secretary of state John Kerry refueled in New York on his way to Kiev, where he arrived this morning.

Russian officials denied there was any ultimatum, calling it “total nonsense.” But Russia’s own Interfax reported that it was issued by fleet commander Alexander Vitko, and Christopher Miller, editor of the local Kyiv Post, tweeted that he personally witnessed it being issued.

As a preliminary step to justify a further Russian offensive, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, on Monday waved a letter that he said was written by ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. In it, he said Yanukovych had requested the deployment of Russian troops on Ukrainian soil in order to restore “law and order.”