Are Russian troops massing on the Ukrainian border in pre-invasion strength? The interim Ukrainian government, backed by NATO, says yes. The Russians insist they're not doing anything beyond routine exercises, and have no intention of invading Ukraine anyway.
It should be an easy question to resolve, but it turns out to be anything but.
Secretary of State John Kerry says there are at least 40,000 Russian troops, or about four standard Russian divisions, maneuvering provocatively on Ukraine's fringes. Ukrainian officials put the count even higher.
"Any real progress in Ukraine must include a pullback of the very large Russian force that is currently massing along Ukraine's borders," Mr. Kerry said after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Paris Sunday. "We believe these forces are creating a climate of fear and intimidation in Ukraine. It certainly does not create the climate that we need."
Mr. Lavrov countered that no extraordinary military movements were taking place at all. "We have absolutely no intention of, or interest in, crossing Ukraine's borders," he said.
There is no reason, on principle, to believe the Russians. After all, it's barely a month since Vladimir Putin clearly said he had no intention of annexing Crimea, but that happened. Exactly a month ago, Russia's parliament granted Mr. Putin full powers to use military forces in Ukraine, and it hasn't been rescinded. Moreover, we know that the Kremlin is capable of mobilizing huge numbers of troops and staging provocative war games on Ukraine's borders because five weeks ago, amid the chaotic power shift in Kiev, it did just that.
On the other hand, the beleaguered Ukrainian interim government, saddled with a legitimacy deficit and struggling to assert its authority across the country, has plenty of reasons to hype the threat of Russian invasion in order to create a unifying sense of national emergency. Might Western leaders be inclined to help them out by dropping a few misleading statements?
It's not an issue that can be definitively settled, but available evidence suggests that – at least for the moment – the Russians are not preparing to attack, nor even mounting a credible threat to do so.
Analysts say the numbers being bandied about by NATO do not jibe with Russian military doctrine. "Any attempt to occupy eastern Ukraine would be far more complicated and on a much greater scale than the operation to secure Crimea was," says Alexander Golts, deputy editor of the liberal Yezhednevny Zhurnal, a leading military expert, and a critic of Putin. "At a very minimum the generals would want 100,000 troops."
Mr. Golts says that what NATO is observing is probably the "vestige" of Russia's big operation earlier this month to take Crimea, which included contingency plans to block any sudden Ukrainian military thrust to relieve the 20,000 Ukrainian military personnel stationed in the territory. "But that's winding down. Those troops are returning to their barracks now," he adds.
Viktor Litovkin, a military expert with the official ITAR-Tass agency, says the Russian Army is more active than it was a few years ago, and it is not unusual to see troops and equipment moving around the countryside, staging exercises, in any part of Russia these days. "Armies are supposed to exercise, and that's what ours does year round," he says.
Another perspective comes from journalists who've toured Russia's borderland searching for the invasion army, and so far found no sign of it.
An NBC camera crew headed by veteran correspondent Jim Maceda covered 1,000 miles, or almost the full extent of the troubled Russo-Ukrainian frontier last week, often taking to back roads and poking their noses into spaces that might be suitable for hiding an armored division or two. The only troops they reported finding were located in established military bases and doing routine things like "latrine duty" and holding a "wrestling match."
When the crew accidentally broke Russian law by entering a closed security zone, they were briefly detained by the FSB [former KGB], and tapped lightly on the wrist before being permitted to go on their way. That's probably the best evidence of all that, at least for now, the Russians likely have nothing to hide down there.