An army assault on pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine will not have taken Vladimir Putin by surprise, but the ferocity of the clashes may have — and could be a game-changer if they spin out of control.

In the last two weeks, with Western sanctions starting to bite, the Russian president has softened his tone against the pro-European leadership in Kiev and promised to pull troops back from the frontier with Ukraine.

The likelihood of Russian forces pouring into east Ukraine to capture mainly Russian-speaking areas has receded, and Putin appears to have settled for the gains he has made so far in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.