Ukrainian president: Remain calm. All is well (for now)

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Has the situation between Russia and Ukraine been overblown? Several of the players involved in the current standoff seem to think it may have been. We already heard from some European leaders this week that there’s no need to “dramatize” the situation by withdrawing staff from our embassy in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sent out his own message to the people of his country last night saying that the situation is “under control” and there is “no reason to panic.” And Vladimir Putin continues to insist that he’s not invading anyone, despite having more than 100,000 troops and heavy armor lined up at the border. As unlikely as it may seem, is it possible that this has all been a very expensive piece of international drama? (Associated Press)

Ukraine’s leaders sought to reassure the nation that a feared invasion from neighboring Russia was not imminent, even as they acknowledged the threat is real and prepared to accept a shipment of American military equipment Tuesday to shore up their defenses.

Russia has denied it is planning an assault, but it has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine in recent weeks, leading the United States and its NATO allies to rush to prepare for a possible war…

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday that the situation was “under control” and that there is “no reason to panic.”

You can easily understand what Zelensky is doing here. It’s part of the job of a president to keep people calm and reassure them of the stability of their nation. At the same time, he also has to be a realist and prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

The Ukrainian Defense Minister seems to be basing the administration’s current assessment on the fact that the Russian troops have not yet been formed up into battle groups as you would expect them to do before going on the offensive. That observation was confirmed by a number of analysts in the region. But military units around the world train for this sort of thing all of the time. If the order was given to form up and move out, the Russian army could almost certainly do that in less than a day.

Since there are this many voices in both Ukraine and NATO chiming in and saying that an invasion isn’t “imminent,” perhaps we need to be asking ourselves if all of this drama and tension was for nothing. What possible motive could Vladimir Putin have for staging that many troops far from their homes in the middle of the winter if he wasn’t anticipating a battle? Could this have been a feint intended to test the resolve and response of NATO and our allies?

I suppose that’s one possibility, but there’s another scenario I think merits consideration. Let’s just say that Putin moves all of those troops to the border and then pulls up short of actually invading Ukraine. He makes a list of totally unreasonable demands, including assurances that Ukraine will be barred from NATO membership. He may have thought there was a chance that Ukraine would knuckle under while staring down the barrel of the Russian army. And if they didn’t, then he was already in place to move his troops in and do it the hard way.

But now, with nearly all of the EU and NATO (aside from Germany) lining up shoulder to shoulder and shipping weapons and military hardware to Ukraine, Putin may be realizing that an invasion into western Ukraine won’t be anywhere near as easy as his move to annex the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Is it possible that Vladimir Putin might be the one to blink first?

Frankly, I’m not buying it, though it would be a serious relief if it happened. In the meantime, the Pentagon announced last night that another 8,500 American troops have been put on a heightened state of alert and may need to ship out to the countries close to Ukraine on short notice. Putin is almost certainly counting on the idea that absolutely nobody wants to get into an actual battle against Russia’s troops for fear of starting World War 3. We shall see how well his confidence holds up going forward.