MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin has been slammed for arming rebels and fanning flames of separatism in eastern Ukraine. But there is strong evidence recently that it's just the opposite: He now wants to bring about a truce.
To do so, however, Putin must face down nationalists at home pressuring him to send in troops to support the rebels occupying town halls and border posts and fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine after the new Ukrainian president ended a mainly one-sided cease-fire.
Putin's strategic aims have not changed: He wants to keep Ukraine at least partly in Russia's orbit and prevent it from joining NATO.
But he is also mindful of Russia's other global relationships, and he needs to move carefully to avoid more sanctions from the European Union and the United States.
His solution? Try to negotiate a truce in Ukraine while securing some long-term levers over Ukraine.
The Russian leader scored a measure of success last month when the new Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, declared a cease-fire that some rebels accepted. While the truce was frequently broken and failed to persuade the rebels to disarm, it set the stage for consultations involving a former Ukrainian president, the Russian ambassador, European officials and insurgent leaders.
The two rounds of peace talks didn't produce any visible results, and Poroshenko canceled the truce on Monday evening. But they brought together the warring parties for the first time, an important success for Putin. The Kiev government had previously resisted his calls to sit down with the rebels, whom they brand as "terrorists."
On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine called for restarting the talks in an attempt to reach an agreement on a new cease-fire that would be respected by both warring sides.
Leonid Kuchma, a former Ukrainian president who has represented the government in the talks, is well-known to Putin, who dealt closely with him for years. Another man at the table was Kuchma's former chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk, who lives in Russia and has close personal ties to Putin.
Putin's ultimate goal is to get Kiev to appoint a Kremlin-friendly figure like Medvedchuk as a regional boss in eastern Ukraine, and see him nurture close ties with Moscow. That may not be immediately achievable, but other steps, like Poroshenko's promise to increase the power of provincial authorities, could increase Russia's sway in eastern Ukraine.
But Putin will need to offer something in return, and his options are limited. Issuing a direct call for the rebels to lay down their arms would sound like a betrayal of their cause and shatter his carefully nurtured image of a tough leader who is ready to stand up to the West.
Many of the rebels, driven by their hatred of a Kiev government that they despise as a "fascist junta," could also be reluctant to disarm.
And Poroshenko, for his part, is facing strong public pressure for a quick military victory, meaning it would be political suicide for him to heed Russian calls to extend the cease-fire and withdraw his troops from the east.
When the mutiny in the east began in mid-April following Russia's annexation of Crimea, some Kremlin strategists might have thought that they could keep the tensions on a slow burner to wring concessions from the Kiev government. But as the battles intensified and the death toll climbed into the hundreds, the anger it has generated is making it increasingly difficult to de-escalate the crisis.
Hawkish members of Putin's inner circle have become increasingly demanding, and there are increasing signs of discord at the top of the Russian leadership. Even if Putin did try to soften his stance, it is far from clear that his lieutenants would carry out his orders.
Putin's economic adviser, Sergei Glazyev, has made a series of bellicose statements, including his recent proposal to send Russian military jets to protect the rebels in eastern Ukraine from government air raids. The Kremlin disavowed his words, saying Glazyev was expressing his private opinion.
Other Russian hawks could be working quietly behind the scenes, orchestrating covert assistance to the rebels. At the border Wednesday, Associated Press journalists saw fresh tracks — a sign that military vehicles had crossed from Russia into Ukraine.
The extent of Russian involvement in the rebellion remains murky. Ukraine and the West say Russia has fomented the insurgency with troops and weapons, including tanks and rocket launchers. Moscow has denied sending any soldiers or military equipment and insisted that Russians fighting in the east are private citizens.
If heavy weapons have crossed the border from Russia into Ukraine as the U.S. says, they haven't made any significant impact on the ground, where the Ukrainian military enjoys massive military superiority over the rebels.
AP journalists in the east have seen a few armored vehicles that the insurgents said they seized from the government, but those could do little to the hundreds of tanks, self-propelled howitzers and rocket launchers that the Ukrainian military has deployed.
Rebel leaders have pleaded with the Kremlin for military assistance, and some prominent Russian nationalists have publicly taunted Putin for cowardice. Such criticism could resonate with the broader Russian public, which has been heavily influenced by Russian state television's characterization of the Kiev government as a "fascist junta" that is killing Russian-speakers.
While the Kremlin has recently moved to tone down the rhetoric in the news media, many Russians — full of patriotic fervor after the annexation of Crimea in March — expect Putin to take resolute action.
In a sense, Putin has become a hostage of his own game of raising the stakes and fiery rhetoric, and it could be hard for him to soften his posture toward Ukraine without eroding his power.
Isachenkov has covered Russia and other ex-Soviet nations for the AP since 1992.