(CN) — Even as 8,500 American soldiers were put on high alert and Russia flexed its muscles with military drills across its 11 time zones, signs began to emerge on Tuesday that tensions between the Kremlin and NATO over Ukraine may be easing just a bit.
On Tuesday, Ukraine's defense minister, Oleksiy Reznikov, said the threat of a Russian invasion of his country was being exaggerated by news media hungry for “clicks,” instead suggesting Moscow was seeking to destabilize Kyiv through other means, such as “hybrid attacks,” according to reports.
Over in Western Europe, meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, the European Union's most powerful politicians, said on Tuesday that they want to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin on de-escalating tensions.
Macron said he planned to speak with Putin on Friday to find a route for diplomacy over the crisis. In the past, Macron has spoken about the need to work with Russia for the sake of European security and Germany has long had a policy of rapprochement towards Russia, a concept known as “Ostpolitik.”
In Putin's inner circles, too, the appetite for further escalation may be waning even as the Kremlin ordered wide-scale military drills in various parts of Russia and beyond, some in conjunction with China.
The West's ostracism of Russia following its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula has forced Putin into a growing alliance with China, prompting many analysts to see a new Cold War emerging. In recent years, Russia and China, which were long seen as rivals, have stepped up military cooperation, sought to create a new financial framework to rival the Western model and built major oil and gas pipelines between the two countries. On Tuesday, Russia and China announced plans to soon sign an agreement to build a lunar space station together, Russia's Tass news agency said.
Putin's warming ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping will be on full display in coming days as he attends the Winter Olympics in Beijing, which start on Feb. 4. The U.S. and its close allies are boycotting the games diplomatically, citing Beijing's human rights abuses in Hong Kong and aggression toward Taiwan, whose independence China rejects.
But the Kremlin's calculations in Ukraine may be shifting too as NATO sends in arms shipments to Kyiv and vows to punish Russia severely if it sends troops across Ukraine's borders. The tensions over Ukraine also are hitting Russia's stock market, the MOEX Russia Index, hard and the ruble's value has tumbled, forcing Russia's Central Bank to step in and halt its slide, as reported by the Moscow Times newspaper.
Since making numerous statements in December about the crisis in Ukraine, Putin has been quiet in recent weeks, leaving political analysts guessing what his intentions might be. He has left the negotiations to the Russian Foreign Ministry led by Sergey Lavrov, a veteran diplomat who met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last Friday for high-stakes talks.
Russia is demanding a retreat of NATO from what it sees as its “sphere of influence,” an area that includes the NATO-aspiring former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia.
Since November, tensions over Ukraine have been rising to dangerous levels after Russia was accused by the U.S. of planning to invade Ukraine.
Western intelligence services pointed to large-scale troop and military equipment movements close to Ukraine's borders as evidence the Kremlin might attack. Claiming an invasion was “imminent,” the U.S. has spent weeks rallying support among NATO allies to the defense of Ukraine in the form of arms shipments and threats to severely punish Russia by booting its banks from the U.S.-dominated international financial transaction system, known as SWIFT.