While the United States warns that Russia could invade Ukraine any day, the drumbeat of war is all but unheard in Moscow, where pundits and ordinary people alike don't expect President Vladimir Putin to launch an attack on its ex-Soviet neighbor.
The Kremlin has cast the U.S. warnings of an imminent attack as "hysteria” and "absurdity,” and many Russians believe that Washington is deliberately stoking panic and fomenting tensions to trigger a conflict for domestic reasons.
Putin's angry rhetoric about NATO's plans to expand to Russia's "doorstep” and its refusal to hear Moscow's concerns has struck a chord with the public, tapping into a sense of betrayal by the West after the end of the Cold War and widespread suspicion about Western designs.
Speaking to reporters after U.S. President Joe Biden's call with Putin on Saturday, Kremlin foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov bemoaned what he described as U.S. "hysteria" about an allegedly imminent invasion, saying that the situation has "reached the point of absurdity.”
The U.S. says that Russia has concentrated over 130,000 troops east, north and south of Ukraine and has the necessary firepower to launch an attack at any moment.
Russian officials have angrily denied any plans to attack Ukraine and dismissed Western concerns about the buildup near the country, arguing that Moscow is free to deploy its troops wherever it likes on its national territory.
"We don’t understand why they are spreading clearly false information about Russian intentions,” Ushakov said about the U.S. warnings of an imminent attack.
In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula following the ouster of the country's Moscow-friendly president and threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, Donbass, where more than 14,000 people have been killed in fighting.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova has taken a more combative tone, denouncing Washington's warnings of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine as "war propaganda” by the U.S. and some of its allies.
Zakharova alleged that the U.S. "needs a war at any price,” charging that "provocations, disinformation and threats represent its favorite methods of solving its own problems."
She denounced U.S. intelligence claims about an alleged "false flag” operation mounted by Russia to create a pretext for invading Ukraine, comparing them to then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's 2003 speech before the U.N. Security Council, in which he made the case for war against Iraq, citing faulty intelligence information claiming Saddam Hussein had secretly stashed weapons of mass destruction.
"The U.S. politicians lied, are lying and will keep lying,” Zakharova said.
Such rhetoric has been amplified by state television, where hosts have alleged nefarious U.S. designs, accusing Washington and its allies of planning phony operations of their own to encourage hawkish forces in Ukraine to launch an offensive to reclaim areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists in the country's east.
Opinion surveys indicate that the majority of Russians share such views.
More than half of respondents in recent polls conducted by the Levada Center, the top independent opinion firm, consider the U.S. responsible for the current standoff over Ukraine, about 15% blame it on Ukraine and only 3%-4% believe it's Russia's fault, while others were undecided, its director Denis Volkov said in comments broadcast earlier this month. Levada's nationwide polls of about 1,600 people have a margin of error not exceeding 3.4 percentage points.
"Most people see the conflict as a Russia-U.S. conflict,” Volkov said, adding that respondents in focus group interviews said that the U.S. could push Ukraine into attacking the rebels in the east to draw Russia into the fighting.
Asked if she fears a war, Moscow resident Anaida Gevorgyan dismissed it as Western "propaganda.”
"Russia will never do it," she said. "We are brotherly people, and we have lived together for so many years.”
Russian political analysts are broadly dismissive of U.S. war warnings, pointing out that Russia's invasion of Ukraine would carry a massive price without offering Putin any clear wins.
"For Moscow, risks of an invasion of Ukraine outweigh any possible gains,” Moscow-based security analyst Sergei Poletayev said in a commentary.
Unlike Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 without firing a shot, and the conflict in Donbass, where Moscow has denied playing a military role despite Ukrainian and Western claims to the contrary, a full-fledged invasion is certain to become a political and economic disaster for Russia.
While the Kremlin appears bent on pulling Ukraine back into Moscow's orbit, a massive offensive will inevitably involve huge casualties, undermining Russia's global standing, leading to its international isolation and shattering Putin's posture as a leader who cares about ordinary Ukrainians and sees the two people as one.
"It's impossible to imagine a war with Ukraine,” Moscow resident Vitaly Ladygin said. "We all have relatives there, we have always lived together. I love Ukraine and dream about going there once it all ends.”
An attack on Ukraine would be certain to trigger draconian Western sanctions that would further cripple Russia's stagnant economy, dent people’s incomes and erode Putin's support. And while the Russian military could be expected to rout the much weaker Ukrainian army, it will inevitably face massive resistance later, resulting in a protracted conflict that would drain Moscow's scarce resources.
Sergei Karaganov, a Russian foreign policy analyst with close ties to Kremlin thinking, said in recently published comments that while "it’s necessary to stop NATO’s further expansion and militarization of Ukraine... we definitely don’t have plans to conquer Ukraine.”
Many Russian observers predict that instead of launching an invasion, Putin could try to keep pressure on the West with more troop deployments and drills to keep Ukraine out of NATO.
"Having failed to score a full diplomatic result or dare to use force, Russia could turn its army presence near Ukraine into a constant or regularly renewed source of threat that will incur a damage to Ukraine that Western assistance wouldn't be able to compensate,” Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said in an analysis. "It will also keep the West under strain, and in the end Ukraine and the West could show a greater flexibility.”
Meanwhile, the talks of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine once again prevailed on Tuesday. Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said that the U.K. government was on alert for any false flag operations in the next few days. Truss told Sky News that were Russian troops to enter Ukraine and they could reach Kyiv quickly.
"In terms of the timing of an attack, it could be imminent," she said, adding that Russian troops could get to Kyiv "very, very quickly."
Germany on Tuesday said it was up to Russia to de-escalate the conflict around Ukraine, calling for Moscow to withdraw its troops, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz readied to meet Putin over the crisis.
"The situation is particularly dangerous and can escalate at any moment," Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in a statement, ahead of the talks in Moscow between the two leaders.
"The responsibility for de-escalation is clearly with Russia, and it is for Moscow to withdraw its troops," she said. "The EU and NATO are united around Ukraine," she said, adding that "we must use all opportunities for dialogue in order to reach a peaceful solution."
Scholz's talks with Putin at the Kremlin are the latest in an intense diplomatic scramble to dissuade the Russian leader from attacking his ex-Soviet neighbor Ukraine.
The meeting between two leaders in the Kremlin is scheduled to last for several hours, with a joint press conference to be held at the end. The visit comes at a time when German-Russian relations are at their lowest ebb. The Ukraine crisis is likely to overshadow several unresolved bilateral conflicts between Berlin and Moscow.
Scholz said during his visit to Kyiv on Monday that he wanted to lobby Putin for de-escalation of the crisis in Ukraine. He described the deployment of tens of thousands of Russian soldiers along the Ukrainian border as "incomprehensible."
He also warned Russia against launching an attack on Ukraine and stressed that the EU and the U.S. were prepared to respond with tough economic sanctions. Ahead of the visit, the Ukrainian ambassador in Germany, Andriy Melnyk, urged the chancellor to take a tough stance with Putin.
"Only a clear ultimatum to Mr. Putin with a deadline to order back his armed-to-the-teeth hordes no later than February 16 can still save world peace," Melnyk told the newspapers of Germany's Funke media group in remarks published on Tuesday. "Should the Kremlin boss ignore this very last warning, extremely painful preventive sanctions against Russia would have to be introduced step by step the very next day," the ambassador added.
Melnyk said sanctions ought to include a total embargo on imports of oil, gas, coal products and other strategic commodities, a freeze on Russian state assets abroad, a complete ban on investments in Russia and extensive personal sanctions against the Russian leaders and oligarchs.
Russia said Tuesday that some forces deployed near Ukraine were beginning to return to their bases, after a buildup of Moscow's army around Ukrainian borders spurred fears of an invasion. "Units of the Southern and Western military districts, having completed their tasks, have already begun loading onto rail and road transport and today they will begin moving to their military garrisons," a Defense Ministry spokesperson said.