David Ignatius
Opinion writer May 8

In the chess game that is the Ukraine crisis, it’s increasingly clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t thought his way through to the endgame. He’s aggressive in his moves, but also calculating. He wants success but not at any cost.

This complex picture of Putin is emerging as analysts study his latest contradictory moves in eastern Ukraine. After several weeks of encouraging Russian-speaking separatists there, Putin said Wednesday that he wanted them to delay a referendum on secession, and he offered some support for the Ukrainian presidential election on May 25.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

“I simply believe that if we want to find a long-term solution to the crisis in Ukraine, open, honest and equal dialogue is the only possible option,” Putin said in Moscow, in a seeming softening of his stance. But almost immediately came contrary indications that Moscow was still seeking to sabotage the very dialogue Putin claimed he wanted.

The Ukraine roller coaster continued Thursday, as separatists said they planned to go ahead with their referendum this weekend, regardless of Putin’s comments. Meanwhile, analysts reported no evidence that Russian troops were withdrawing from the Ukrainian border, as Putin had claimed Wednesday he planned to do.

Putin’s actions are most likely a study in ad hoc policymaking rather than a precise strategy. He has been cunning and forceful but also wary of taking steps that could damage Russia, such as a military invasion of Ukraine or open destabilization of its planned election. He’s “winging it,” to put it in vernacular terms, trying to get the best advantage for Russia at the lowest cost.

Putin, in this view, is behaving as a somewhat cautious bully. He’s dusting off his sheep’s clothing with his recent diplomatic talk, although he remains very much the wolf underneath. This analysis suggests that in Putin’s mind, appearances matter — and that he would rather operate undercover in Ukraine than with naked, vulpine aggression.

For Moscow watchers, a clearer picture of the mercurial Russian leader has emerged in recent weeks. Some highlights:

●Putin is a prickly leader who was personally wounded that President Obama and other world leaders didn’t attend the Sochi Olympics or give him credit for staging a safe global extravaganza despite terrorist threats.

●Putin cares about money — both Russia’s finances and the private accounts of his personal money managers. The West may have been slow in imposing crippling financial measures, but he knows they’re possible.

●He pays close attention to Germany. The visit to Washington last week by Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to have affected Putin’s calculus. When Merkel agreed with Obama that sectoral sanctions would be triggered if Russia sabotaged Ukraine’s election — not just by an outright invasion — Putin had to reconsider his moves.

For all of his ruthlessness, he appears to be acting in Ukraine without a well-defined long-term strategy. Though he had been thinking about seizing Crimea for some weeks before he moved in early March, the process of annexation there seems to have moved faster than he anticipated. Similarly, eastern Ukraine may have unraveled faster than Putin expected, pulling him toward an invasion that many Western analysts think he doesn’t want.

Putin must now weigh whether Russia’s interests are better served by the kind of neutrality deal the Obama administration appears ready to offer. The U.S. view is that the new government in Kiev will be stable only if Russia is invested in its success — and that, in turn, will happen only if Moscow concludes that a new Ukraine won’t be a platform for NATO or the European Union.

Putin clearly could obtain such assurances of a non-threatening Ukraine if he opted for de-escalation and a diplomatic course. U.S. officials are signaling their hope that the United States and Russia could cooperate in building a neutral, non-NATO Ukraine, following a successful May 25 election. Indeed, administration policymakers have been studying the Cold War experience of Finland for guidance on issues that might face a future Ukraine.

What makes Putin so puzzling is that even as he shows signs of rational calculation, he continues to stoke the fires of confrontation in ways that could ultimately harm Russia. He has gained significant domestic popularity with his flag-waving nationalism, but sharp declines in Russian stock indexes illustrate the potential risks.

Putin seems to sense that he would pay for invading Ukraine or fomenting permanent turmoil inside its borders. Does he have a strategy to win this game, or is he now playing for some version of a draw?

Read more from David Ignatius’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.