It may be the least surprising invasion in recent history, should it ever take place.
Having spent months moving troops, ships, weapons and equipment to the Ukrainian border, any Russian move into its neighbor’s territory will have completely lost all element of surprise and the host of military advantages that come with it.
It has been a drawn-out, deliberate process that has some military strategists and war game designers scratching their heads. In Kyiv, Paris and Washington, heads of state and military planners have had ample time to repeatedly sound the alarm that a Russian invasion may be coming, coordinate a response and help bolster the capabilities of Ukrainian forces on the country’s eastern front, who have spent many weeks fortifying their defensive positions in preparation for war.
Cracks may have emerged among NATO allies as to how best to respond to Russian aggression, but there is little doubt that the Kremlin has decreased the chances that a large-scale military invasion could succeed by slow-walking its mobilization. Indeed, the most appealing window of opportunity may have been the holiday season, when fears of an invasion were nearing their peak and Russia’s Western adversaries were still scrambling to organize a defense.
The clear predictability of an invasion adds to what analysts say is an unappealing reality for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country’s military officials, who virtually guarantee more Russian casualties with each day that passes before launching an invasion.
“I think that the Russians will, in the end, realize that an invasion will be no joke for them either. It will cost thousands of lives. It will inflict, if it takes place, untold damage and suffering. And it will not get them anywhere,” journalist and renowned Russia expert David Satter said in a recent conversation with The Washington Times.
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“There will be no positive result. All they’ll do is unleash partisan warfare against themselves and, most important, they’ll run the threat of destabilizing the regime in Russia itself,” said Mr. Satter, explaining why he believes a Russian invasion now appears unlikely.
Moscow is publicly sticking by its demands that NATO halt expansion, restrict troop deployments in Eastern Europe and take other steps, and Mr. Putin has yet to cancel his threat of a “military-technical” response if he doesn’t get his way.
Still, there are signs that Mr. Putin is looking for a way out of the crisis. On Monday morning, the Russian president held a lengthy meeting to discuss the crisis with French President Emmanuel Macron. Mr. Macron emerged from that meeting saying Mr. Putin assured him that he did not intend to escalate the situation. That comment indicates that the more than 100,000 Russian troops stationed along the Ukraine border will not invade.
Still, the French leader sought to temper expectations.
“Let’s not be naive,” Mr. Macron said Tuesday. “Since the beginning of the crisis, France hasn’t been inclined to exaggerate, but at the same time, I don’t believe this crisis can be settled in a few hours, through discussions.”
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Mr. Macron met Tuesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who expressed optimism that deescalation is on the horizon. Still, he stressed that he does not “trust words” alone from Russia. Ukrainian officials, sometimes to the consternation of Washington, have been among the most vocal saying they don’t believe a Russian invasion is imminent and have even scolded President Biden for suggesting it is.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov downplayed Mr. Macron’s comments and pushed back on the idea that Mr. Putin had offered any guarantees.
“In the current situation, Moscow and Paris can’t be reaching any deals,” Mr. Peskov said.
The Kremlin also said clearly Tuesday that tens of thousands of Russian troops in Belarus near the Ukrainian border for joint maneuvers would be coming home when the exercises conclude on Feb. 20.
Western military analysts expressed alarm at the timing of the exercises when nerves were on edge along Russia’s western borders with Europe. Russian officials said it was always the plan for those forces to return home after completing the exercises.
Deescalating the crisis
Meanwhile, regional specialists say there are signs that Mr. Putin appears more open to negotiations and that Russia’s formerly rock-solid stance may be shifting. They point to Mr. Putin’s reported seven-hour meeting with Mr. Macron as evidence that Moscow may agree to further deescalation talks with the West and possibly back off from some of the demands it made during the round of discussions last month.
“Of course he sticks to his positions, but I’ve not got the impression that he’s in the mood for escalation,” Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, told Reuters on Tuesday. “Probably you wouldn’t speak to an opponent for seven hours if you wanted just to lecture him and close the file.”
Russia is still taking a provocative posture on some fronts. On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it was sending six warships from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea for a set of military exercises. There also is a growing belief that the Russian government may soon formally recognize the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and other self-declared pro-Russian enclaves in eastern Ukraine. Those areas have been home to years of fighting between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists with the backing of Moscow.
Such a move could allow Mr. Putin to further chip away at Ukraine’s sovereignty, just as he did with the military annexation of Crimea in 2014, without risking a military operation.
Yet a major military invasion seems to grow less likely by the day. Specialists have been speculating for weeks that Russia, if it truly intended to invade Ukraine, would not give its enemy so much time to prepare, nor would it allow the international community months to formulate a response by readying a coordinated set of crushing economic sanctions.
The Kremlin’s hopes that just the threat of invasion would expose new cracks in the U.S.-European alliance or divide major NATO powers so far does not seem to have worked. Mr. Biden and European leaders have kept largely in lockstep on a threat to impose punishing economic sanctions on Moscow in the event of war.
“An invasion of Ukraine is difficult in the best conditions. The country is roughly the size of Afghanistan, and coordinating a complex armored operation presents untold opportunities for failure,” George Friedman, an international affairs analyst and founder of the online publication Geopolitical Futures, wrote in a piece late last month.
“The Russian army has not carried out an armored operation since World War II, so the troops are inexperienced. Minimizing the possibility of an anti-Russian buildup would increase the risk to the operation,” he said. “In an operation of this magnitude, the attack should be made as early as possible. By waiting, Russia increased the risk of failure.
“The only conclusion to be drawn is that Russia has no intention of invading Ukraine” despite the military buildup, he said.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.