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 Putin 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.