Who knows how far he'll go?

Putin's Bullying Gets Scarier and Subtler

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Did Russian President Vladimir Putin really say that he could have troops in the capitals of Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Romania in two days? Whatever the truth may be, the rumor plays into his hands.

Reports of Putin's alleged posturing arose from the transcript of a conversation between European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The latter told Barroso that Putin had mentioned to him the possibility of sending Russian troops to the East European capitals. The influential Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung duly reportedthat "Putin supposedly issued a massive threat to Europe." Romania's Mediafax news agency went further: "Putin Threatens He May Send Troops to Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest."

The story was reminiscent of a Sept. 1 articlein Italy's La Repubblica, which reported on a Barroso-Putin phone conversation in which the Russian leader supposedly said: "If I wanted to, I would take Kiev in two weeks." The main difference was that in the latter case the second-hand source was Poroshenko, not Barroso -- and, of course, the time needed for invasion shrank from 14 days to two and the list of endangered cities expanded sixfold.

Having been shamed into apologizingafter the Barroso leak, European officials refused to comment this time around. News organizations were more careful, too: They didn't reprint Sueddeutsche Zeitung's scoop as widely as they had La Repubblica's. Perhaps they understood that Poroshenko's credibility is far from ironclad. He has an interest in drumming up anger in the West so that Ukraine gets more aid and Russia is hit with more sanctions.

Still, the story does help Putin in his campaign of subtle intimidation. For months he has been pushing Europe to lean on Ukraine and ensure its surrender, and sending messages to Poroshenko that Ukraine would never win militarily. To that end, supposedly careless slips about Russia's military power can be useful. It benefits Putin for Europe to know he could go further if pushed too hard.

Europeans must again get used to living in Cold War times and hearing threatening noises from Moscow. They will remain no more than noises as long as Russia and NATO find a balance of mutual containment, as it was during the previous Cold War.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net