Yesterday, NATO released commercial-satellite images to confirm what they had long claimed and what Russia has repeatedly denied — that Moscow has mobilized tens of thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine. Russia has insisted that they do not plan to invade eastern Ukraine and that the troop movements are part of normal exercises. NATO published the photos to rebut that explanation:

NATO released satellite photographs on Thursday showing Russian military equipment, including fighter jets and tanks, that it described as part of a deployment of as many as 40,000 troops near the border with Ukraine. The release came the same day that President Vladimir V. Putin reiterated a threat to curtail gas sales to Ukraine.

The photographs, taken by a commercial satellite imaging company called DigitalGlobe, offered some of the first documentary evidence of a military buildup that the West says Russia could use to invade Ukraine at any moment. They were released at a news conference in Belgium by Brig. Gary Deakin, the director of NATO’s Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Center.

The Kremlin has accused the West of exaggerating Russia’s military presence along the Ukrainian border and has insisted that it has no plans for a second military incursion after its lightning-quick occupation andannexation of Crimea. Still, Russia has warned that it may take military action to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine if they are threatened. …

At the news conference on Thursday, Brigadier Deakin said the photographs showed a menacing force.

“The Russians have an array of capabilities, including aircraft, helicopters, special forces, tanks, artillery, infantry fighting vehicles,” Brigadier Deakin said, according to a NATO news release. “These could move in a matter of hours.”

Sergei Lavrov had earlier warned NATO not to move its forces into proximity of Russian borders, which the Russian foreign minister claimed would violate the NATO-Russian accords on Western troop movements. He accused the West of being “Russophobic”:

NATO placing military forces near Russian borders will be in violation of NATO’s international obligations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Interfax. “The fact that NATO members [East European NATO members] are now being forced, most likely under pressure, to place troops near Russia, is a violation of the basic act of Vienna declaration principles,” Lavrov said.

Russophobic moods start prevailing in NATO over aspiration to ensure security of Euro-Atlantic region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Interfax.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov believes Eastern European countries are provoking anti-Russian tendencies in NATO. “It looks like panic, which some Eastern European countries, which did not stop talking about imagined threats from Russia after entering NATO, are trying to artificially fan,” Lavrov told Interfax on Thursday, commenting on the statements made by NATO military officials calling for the reinforcement of military forces in Europe due to “the Russian threat.”

The minister said NATO officials once convinced Russia that the Eastern European countries would “calm down” about the imagined threats from Moscow after they entered NATO.

“However, they have not calmed down, they have begun doing everything – by the way, with evident encouragement from Washington – to not just calm down in NATO, but conduct the music in NATO and use the rules of solidarity and consensus accepted in NATO and the EU to minimize cooperation between NATO and Russia.

“It’s sad,” Lavrov said.

However, Lavrov signaled that Moscow may have had enough of this fight. All Russia wants, Lavrov wants, is a guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality and an end to NATO efforts to woo Kyiv into the alliance:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on Friday for legal guarantees of Ukraine’s neutrality, underlining Moscow’s determination to keep the neighboring former Soviet republic out of NATO.

Lavrov said Moscow was ready for four-party talks next week with the United States, the European Union and representatives of Ukraine and suggested Ukraine’s gas debt to Moscow should be on the agenda, Russia news agencies reported.

But he suggested Moscow would try to use such talks to shape Ukraine’s future and keep it from moving too close to Europe and the United States under the pro-Western leadership in power following the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovich.

“Firm guarantees of the preservation of Ukraine’s non-aligned status law, are needed,” Lavrov said at a meeting with Russian non-governmental organizations, adding that the guarantees should be “enshrined in law”.

That may disappoint pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, who seized government buildings in hopes of a Russian intervention:

It might disappoint pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria in Moldova, too:

The new government in Kyiv also signaled a willingness to talk about an expanded view of federalism for the provinces in the east:

Ukraine’s prime minister on Friday told leaders in the country’s restive east that he is committed to allowing regions to have more powers, but left it unclear how his ideas differed from the demands of protesters now occupying government buildings or Russia’s advocacy of federalization.

The officials whom Arseniy Yatsenyuk met in Donetsk did not include representatives of the protesters. The officials asked Yatsenyuk to allow referenda on autonomy for their regions, not on secession.

“There are no separatists among us,” said Gennady Kernes, mayor of the Kharkiv region where protesters had occupied a government building earlier in the week.

If all sides are willing to compromise, there is room for an exit strategy from the crisis. Russia will drive a hard bargain in these talks to be sure, with its threats to cut off natural-gas supplies from Ukraine and a demand to have them pay what Moscow says is an overdue bill for gas already delivered. But Russia may be seeing — finally — that an aggressive move on eastern Ukraine will carry unpleasant security consequences for them in the Baltics and perhaps in the Black Sea, too. NATO will have to give up making Ukraine part of a Western defense network (and Georgia as well, in all likelihood), but that was unrealistic anyway as long as Russia’s economy allows them weight in this region.

However, even with a relatively cost-free resolution in the offing, the scales should have fallen now from Western eyes about the nature of Vladimir Putin and his ambitions for a new Russian empire. It should be a long, long time before anyone offers Lavrov or Putin another “reset button.”