The media reports are pretty uniform, Russia intends to invade Ukraine.  This analysis or lack thereof seems to help Russia in its goals more than hurt it but we remain skeptical of the imminent invasion alarms for several reasons.

First, the demands made by Russia are not ultimatums with compliance demanded by a certain day or else hostilities will commence,  Russia is making several demands including a legal guarantee that Ukraine will never be admitted to NATO, that intermediate-range nuclear missiles be withdrawn from Easter Europe outside the range of Russian territory, that all NATO troops be withdrawn from Eastern NATO countries like Poland and that NATO halt any expansion of its membership in Eastern Europe.

Russia explains these demands by claiming that they are only calculated to assure their own defense against aggression from NATO.  The obvious rebuttal is to ask what exactly does Russia have to fear from Western Europe?  Russia has the largest conventional army and the largest nuclear arsenal on the continent right now. Russia’s active duty army is greater than one million which is huge by comparison to the combined armies of Germany, France, and the UK, which are two-thirds the size in terms of active-duty troops.  In terms of aircraft, ships, tanks, and artillery, the Russians overwhelm every other country in Europe in terms of military strength. In Europe, the United States only has about 70,000 troops on the entire continent spread between Germany, Turkey, the UK, Poland, and other NATO countries. It is hardly a massed formation ready to go into combat. So this is not a real issue for Russia, but a contrivance.

As for guarantees that NATO will not admit new member countries in Eastern Europe or Ukraine specifically, that too is a non-negotiable item for the U.S. and Western Europe.  That Russia would even demand something like this is an indication of what Putin is really after here.

Nor will the U.S. agree to draw down its deployed forces in Europe to zero.

Believe it or not, there is actually a lot of room for negotiation in those demands; not all the troops out but some, not all the missiles pulled back, but some, a ten-year hold on any new NATO members among Eastern European countries, etc, etc.  In these terms, there are ways both sides could(and probably want) to pull back without an armed conflict.

If you want to know what a real ultimatum looks like, go back to the first Gulf War in 1991.  President George Bush told Iraq that it must begin evacuation of all its forces from Kuwait by noon on February 23rd, 1991, and complete that evacuation in seven days, or we would attack them and drive them out by force. Bush issued this ultimatum just one day earlier on February 22nd. Saddam should have known that there was no wriggle room in that for the U.S.  A smarter man(not Saddam) would have realized that an ultimatum issued with 24 hours notice with a day and exact time was not open to negotiation.  There was no way President Bush could change the date and time without the loss of all credibility.

You will note that Russia’s demands are entirely open-ended in terms of time, they are not saying, “Unless we get what we want by January 30th, we invade.” That should be taken very seriously.