That would be … today, right? It’ll be 5 pm in Kyiv when this post goes live, not exactly the most propitious time for a massive infantry invasion into hostile and largely unknown territory. ABC reports that Vladimir Putin has his troops in position to launch an invasion at pretty much any time now, but the question remains whether he will give the order:

But worrying U.S. officials, Russian troops are instead moving forward closer to the line, including with medical supplies, and being put into firing positions, sources told ABC News.

The U.S. believes that Russia now has all the necessary pieces in place, including 150,000 troops in the region, to launch a swift and brutal invasion of Ukraine, the sources added — the reason why Biden administration officials have now publicly been saying Russia could move “at any time.”

In particular, ABC News has learned that Russian leader Vladimir Putin had told his military forces to be ready to go by Wednesday, Feb. 16, but it is still unclear whether he has made a decision to attack his neighbor.

For its part, Russia is accusing the West of indulging in “hysteria,” especially the US:

The Russian government has denied any plans to invade Ukraine and repeatedly accused the U.S. of “hysteria” with these increasingly urgent warnings about one.

“After Russian troops finish drills and return to barracks, the West will declare ‘diplomatic victory’ by having ‘secured’ Russian ‘de-escalation’ — a predictable scenario and cheap domestic political points,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Saturday, according to the country’s foreign ministry.

What’s really going on? The New York Times’ reporters say there are signs that the Ukraine crisis is truly “cooling,” but can’t say for sure why. For one thing, Putin has apparently refused to “recognize” the independence of two Donbas provinces controlled by Russia-backed militias, even after the Duma urged him to take that action. That would have followed Putin’s playbook in Georgia, but instead Putin’s spokesperson insisted that Putin would abide by the earlier Minsk agreements instead:

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday criticized a move by Russian lawmakers toward recognizing two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine as independent, saying it would be illegal and draw a swift response. …

Blinken said such a move would amount to “the Russian government’s wholesale rejection of its commitments under the Minsk agreements”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had “taken note” of the parliament’s request but that it would not be line with the 2014-15 Minsk agreements aimed at ending the conflict.

The comment appeared to indicate that Putin would not rush into recognizing the separatist areas, but might keep such an option in reserve.

The first NYT scenario for explaining this is that the Ukraine crisis has always been a bluff to wring concessions out of the West and Kyiv. Otherwise, the costs are just too high for the benefits:

There does not seem to be any immediate cause for Moscow’s change in tone, which suggests that perhaps Putin never planned to invade, despite the huge buildup of troops. “Putin might have been bluffing all along,” Edward Wong, a Times correspondent in Washington, told me, “so seeking a diplomatic resolution where he can wring guarantees, however small, from Ukraine, the United States and Western European nations might be the best outcome for him.”

Putin certainly has reasons not to invade. The sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies could damage Russia’s economy. The majority of Russians don’t want an invasion, the Levada Center, a pollster, says. A war would also likely involve large casualties on both sides — including among Ukrainian civilians, many of whom have relatives in Russia, notes Anton Troianovski, the Times’s Moscow bureau chief.

Notably, several prominent experts in Russia, including some who are close to the Kremlin, have been expressing skepticism for weeks about an invasion. Andrew Kramer, a Times correspondent who’s been reporting from Ukraine since November, has noticed similar skepticism in Kyiv and among Ukrainian soldiers at the border. “You would expect more nervousness than you actually see,” Andrew said, “and part of the bigger story here is that the Ukrainians have been less worried on an official level and in society than the U.S. government about the Russian buildup.”

Of course, this depends mightily on how Putin sees the benefits. Putin has been coldly rational over the long course of his rule as a quasi-tsar, pursuing the traditional Russian impulses toward both empire and paranoid defenses all around Russia. The West’s attempts to peel off the traditional provinces under Russian influence clearly provoked the latter impulse, at least, a point we might have considered if not blinded by all of the “end of history” nonsense that percolated in the early 1990s.

But would Putin benefit from a forced annexation of Ukraine, with its tens of millions of hostile ethnic Ukrainians? Not in the long run, but Russians don’t want the West parking its military in the Donbas either. It’s bad enough that Romania and Bulgaria (and Turkey as a NATO member in good standing until recently) have aligned themselves with the EU and NATO and opened up the Black Sea to Western naval forces. Putin certainly wants to make Ukrainians think about that good and hard before turning the Black Sea into an almost-entirely NATO-controlled body, among other security issues.

For that purpose, it might make sense for Putin to keep his forces arrayed in “firing positions” for a good long while. The costs would be substantial, but leaving them in place forces the West and Kyiv to keep making deals. That could end up being very profitable, politically and economically, if Putin can afford to stretch out the extensive logistical costs for a while.

That doesn’t mean Putin won’t invade Ukraine, either incrementally or with a “quick and brutal” assault. The problem for Putin isn’t successfully invading Ukraine, it’s what to do with it afterward. Ukrainians are no strangers to Russian occupation, after all, nor to Russian brutality — and they’re not likely to just resign themselves to it again either. Putin’s main industry might shift from energy production to body bags in a hurry, and it won’t take long for such casualties to create a political backlash in Russia. Putin has less control over information getting into Russia than the Politburo did with the Afghanistan occupation, and that disaster created a massive political collapse for the Soviets. Putin has to add that into his calculations here too. He might still decide that a show of Russian might is worth those costs, but it would be a very large and somewhat unusual mistake for Putin to make.

Right now, Putin probably hopes to just fracture NATO while making his point to Ukrainians. He’s at least scoring some points in the latter ambition. He can afford to keep the pressure up for a while longer to see how much damage he can do to the West on the cheap, and I’d bet that’s precisely what Putin has in mind. Especially when it damages operations of Western intelligence agencies like this.

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