Here’s where the sorts of numbers cited in the Times article have no meaning, one way or the other. According to Western officers and several private specialists, the forces gathered in Russia’s Western Military District are capable of invading Ukraine’s easternmost cities, like Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk. They would probably start off by sending in special forces to recruit local allies, then mount a wave of cyber-attacks to degrade or spoof the Ukraine military’s warning and communication networks, followed by a blitzkrieg attack by tanks, paratroopers, and so forth.
But occupying those towns for any length of time is another matter. Logistics—refurbishing troops with a line of supplies—were always the Russian army’s weak point, even in the Cold War heyday; that’s still the case. Then there’s the army itself. The special forces and paratroopers are professional, but the rest of the army consists of draftees, serving one-year terms that many of them spend drunk and disorderly. If they face any resistance, whether from the Ukrainian army (a ragtag force itself) or “irregulars” (homegrown insurgents) or outside agents (a squad or two of Delta Force troops), the Russian soldiers could find themselves seriously bogged down.
Politically, Putin would find himself on very shaky ground. Already, he mustered only 10 other countries—the likes of Belarus, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Syria—to oppose a U.N. resolution condemning the annexation of Crimea. If he invades Ukraine, a sovereign nation with a United Nations seat, his isolation will widen and deepen politically, diplomatically, and economically.
If he crosses that line, he will also do more than anyone ever has to rouse the European nations out of their post-Cold War stupor. He can count on Britain, Germany, and France to boost their defense budgets, and in a way that confronts Russia. He can also count on the United States to station more troops, fighter jets, maybe even armored weapons in Poland and the Baltics—to hell with concerns about provocation. And he must know the lesson that other nation-states have learned in recent years: that if he prompts a conventional conflict with the United States military, he will lose badly.
This is one reason why Putin probably won’t take the next step. Pavel Felgenhauer, the most astute Russian military analyst, also notes in Foreign Policy that the Russian army’s conscripts are scheduled to rotate in April. The troops with a year of training under their belts (such as it is, and it isn’t much) will be replaced by new grunts, who aren’t likely to be thrilled by their thrust into combat or competent at carrying out the mission. If Putin wanted to invade eastern Ukraine, the best time to do so would have been last week.
Then again, and this is another source of nervousness, Putin has shown himself to be an irrational actor. He already possessed Crimea, really, and probably could have hardened de facto into de jure through more peaceful methods, over time. He operated many levers of influence in Ukraine, and could have maneuvered the upcoming elections in his favor, whether through bribing key candidates or any number of other time-honored techniques.
Putin didn’t have to take the route he took. Few predicted that he would, if only because it would do him no good and he had other ways to accomplish his goals. This is another reason to be nervous now. He doesn’t have to make incursions into mainland Ukraine either: It would really do him no good, and there are other ways to continue Russian influence in that country.
He seized Crimea anyway. Will he dive into Donetsk, too? Nobody knows, and this is cause for concern. But it’s not cause for panic, the NATO nations aren’t in mortal danger, and to claim otherwise by citing comparisons with the state of NATO in 1990 is profoundly misleading and, in any case, irrelevant.