Russia has not explicitly threatened to invade Ukraine, but has complained of alleged provocations on the Ukrainian side of their shared border. Mr Putin has supported a pro-Russian separatist insurgency in the eastern part of the former Soviet republic since 2014, when a people’s revolution toppled the Putin-backed president of Ukraine. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine soon after.
As a sign of rising tensions, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, spoke on Tuesday by telephone with his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov. The Pentagon said in a statement that the call was to “ensure risk reduction and operational deconfliction.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the United States was providing information and data to Kiev on strengthening Russian forces. Western officials have confirmed that NATO allies are stepping up intelligence sharing with Ukraine, in the hope that a better understanding of the growing threat will help Kiev better prepare and deter Moscow.
Even in the worst-case scenarios, most analysts say, Kiev shouldn’t expect the US military to come to the rescue.
“The Russians know full well, because they’ve been invading Ukraine for seven years now, that we’re not going to send the 82nd Airborne,” said Samuel Charap, a former State Department official now with the RAND Corporation. . “And I think they’ve probably priced everything but that, in the sense that they’re willing to pay the price.”
“That’s what makes it difficult,” he added. “There is no easy way out of this.”
US officials have said they do not believe Mr Putin has yet decided whether to take military action against Ukraine. While the threat is taken seriously, officials said, the United States and its allies have time to try to prepare Kiev and convince Moscow that such a move would be a terrible mistake.
Whatever Mr Putin thinks, the constitution of his troops is likely to test the will of the United States, NATO and Europe to act.