Yes, signs regarding a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine have gotten much worse in the last few days. I am hearing from my wife that Russian media are now claiming there are lots of US troops in Ukraine. Such a claim, not even backed up by some fake video, would clearly serve as an excuse for an invasion. There are also reports out of the Russian media that Putin feels that he was not treated well in Beijing. Apparently he was shunted off to some side airport when he landed, with only the Russian ambassador there to meet him. This may help explain some reports of Xi not being impressed with his "overbearing manner,=" despite their superficially friendly joint communique. This suggests that Xi may not be able to hold him back, although maybe he can hold him back until at least the Winter Olympics are done.
As it is, the date for that is Feb. 20, which coincides with the conclusion of the exercises in Belarus. Supposedly the Russian troops there will go home after then, but that conclusion time looks like a highly likely time to invade, if indeed that is what is coming. Clearly markets are more worried, with Brent crude price passing $95 per barrel a sign, even as there are rumors of a renewed Iran nuclear deal happening.
My concern is that Putin seems to have become highly isolated to the point of becoming deludional. Reportedly he thinks like Bush before invading Iraq that he will be welcomed as a "liberator" if he invades, at least by native Russian speakers. But it is pretty clear now that would/will not be the case. People in Kharkiv have no interest in living lives like people in the separatist Donbas republics, where conditions are basically awful. Since Zelensky came to power, the economy has been generally improving with clearly reduced corruption levels, and with most Russian speakers not supporting the aggressive actions by Putin, although in Crimea they may be mostly satisfied more or less.
The invasion and annexation of Crimea was popular in Russia. But there are many indicators an invasion of Ukraine now would not be popular there. It also looks that it would not be welcomed by many of Putin's cronies, who would suffer substantial financial losses due to economic sanctions such as shutting off access to SWIFT settlements, or even losses of real estate in UK and elsewhere. There are even elements of the military openly opposing an invasion, notably retired General Ivashov.
Besides these reports about Russian media claiming US troops in Ukraine and Putin annoyed at his reception in Beijing, there are also lots of reports that Putin's own position in Moscow is not secure, that many around him want him out. It even may be that this possible invasion is partly going on to distract from that and to keep people in line. But a failed invasion could trigger his overthrow. The leading candidates to replace him are either hardline Defense Minister Shoigu, who has been advocating the invasion, with cynics saying he has been pushing it precisely to get Purtin out so he can come in, or especially if the invasion becomes a big mess, the current Prime Minister, Mitushkin.
Anyway, I have become much more worried about the current situation. It is not unreasonable of President Biden to be urging US citizens to leave Ukraine at this time, unfortunately, although maybe reason will still prevail in the head of V.V. Putin, which is what matters here totally.
Would you share your sources for some of this news? I'm not seeing much of hope on the pages of Kommersant or Novaya gazeta, among others. I'd be careful about seeing Shoigu as taking Putin's place, at least at the moment. Too many siloviki types are in the inner circle, and none of them look like claimants to power or ready to support a palace coup. This is a tight group, too (Putin and Naryshkin and Patrushev have known each other for years). One thing Putin has done right (for himself and his circle) is to eradicate any possible competition, which means any real succession as well. One goes, they all go, and Putin has made the kleptocracy possible. There are various security services monitoring each other (Mark Galeotti writes a lot about these structures). Mishustin (PM) would not act on his own; he'd be the front man for a group in the shadows, but it's hard to see the current security elite throwing Putin under the bus, because the bus would probably get them too. To run the risk of violating Godwin's law, Putin seems to be acting like Hitler in several ways, including: if I go down, everything else goes down with me. Then again, he really is trapped in power (think Michael Corleone in Godfather III). He has nowhere to go without someone (inside or outside Russia) using kompromat to get him in hot water.
This is the problem of Russia today: the folks running the show are tight and corrupt, and there is a vacuum if something happens to them. Liberals hate Putin, the nationalists are getting tired of him ruining the country as well, but the structures are not there for them to act.
I hope China is not writing him a blank check (as seems the case from your sources), and my guess is that Xi doesn't want Putin to act in an unpredictable or volatile manner. Putin has misjudged, and he is going to keep rolling the dice because he has done so since 2000. He has only gotten away with it because he is the front man for what is essentially a mafia running that country, where if one loses, they all lose.
Latest word out of Moscow is that Putin has announced a "successful" conclusion to the exercises in Belarus and that forces will be withdrawing. I suspect that a deal was cut in the phone call on Saturday with the US removing its advisers from Ukraine a crucial part of that. Apparently they are being taken out right now.
BTW, most media coverage in Moscow right now is focusing on the Winter Olympics, where the Russians are doing quite well, also a useful distraction.
Apparently Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have held a press conference in Moscow where Lavrov went on at great length about a lot of details of relations between Russia and NATO. While this did not clarify a deal done, it looks like a cool watchback. Meeting with German Chancellor Scholze coming later today will hopefully seal the remaining loose ends of the deal.
Maybe the climbdown begins? But then what next? Putin isn't that smart--he knows the basics of KGB 101 and mafiia thug 101 form his 1990s days in Petersburg, but not playing 3D chess, and this has worked because Western leadership has not been up to snuff over that time. But he and those around him will have learned that Biden knows how to put together a coalition. We haven't changed his behavior, and he doesn't want compromise--he wants to win (power tends to corrupt). Far rom over, even if he does pull back troops.
of course there are no "a" teams in ukraine, poland and baltics.
no one there trining the stinger troops, or maintaining them as "up round". those are likely "contractors"
and what's coming about engagements on the donbas line?
And now mixed signals from Moscow: climbdown and continuing build-up. Some troops leaving Belarus, but where are they going? Some shells lobbed from separatists into Luhansk. The Russian navy is effectively bottling up Ukraine's coast. And the demands remain the same, designed to fail. Putin and the hardliners around him seem ready to keep pushing until cracks appear and the Western alliance starts to crumble. He has ramped up repression at home, so he doesn't have to watch his back like Western politicians must. The only puzzle is the timing: Why now? The popular protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan might have triggered Putin and his circle to do something to end these existential threats to their kleptocratic regime. Also seems he underestimated Biden's ability to stand firm and that the Biden admin would release all these claims that force Putin onto his back foot (e.g. that red flag or other operations are likely). Putin's is used to dealing with less forceful pushback and doesn't know what to do except to play hardman for his domestic audience.
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