For Vladimir Putin, the operation to take back Ukraine – and replace the government of Volodymyr Zelensky on the way – seems like a case of now or never.

The Russian President has given himself surprisingly little room for manoeuvre. He may have sixty per cent of Russia’s ground combat force poised to attack Ukraine, and half the combat air power. There are no reserves to back them, of anything like equal capability. He cannot afford a long war, even less a difficult occupation. He has the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as a warning. It will be difficult to hold down a country the size of Germany and France combined.

This is why a sharp, heavy armoured thrust to Kyiv, some two hours’ drive from the Belarus border, looks a first priority. Up to eight lines of attack have been identified by Nato planners, most concentrated on Kyiv, the Donbas enclave, Karkyv, with its large Russian-speaking population, and the coasts of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Intriguingly, the planners suggest an operation to link up with pro-Russian forces and militias in Transnistria, sandwiched between Ukraine’s south-west border and Moldova.

The actions of recent hours and days seem to point to now rather than never. The barrage of accusations about ceasefire violations in the Donbas enclave of Eastern Ukraine have continued for a third day. Russia says Ukrainian artillery has been shelling the Russian entities in Luhansk and Donetsk. The Kremlin has threatened “military-technical adjustments” in retaliation – in other words, war.

More than half the 114 Battalion Tactical Groups ringing Ukraine have now moved out of their staging posts and towards the border. At dawn today about half, some 50,000 troops, were reckoned by Nato to be within 35 miles of the main crossing points into Ukraine.

Overnight reinforcements have been moving towards the Belarus frontier with Ukraine, crossing the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the sanitised area following the nuclear station collapse in 1986.

The Kremlin has also announced that Russia’s forces will start their annual Grom strategic drills from Saturday, “under our supreme commander in chief, Vladimir V Putin.” These will include exercises with strategic missiles and nuclear forces, ships of the Black Sea and ground and air forces of Russia’s southern command.

The war games could be cover to launch the all-out invasion of Ukraine, which many Nato leaders believe could be imminent, “though not inevitable”, as UK security minister Damian Hinds told Times Radio today.

The force of around 150,000 presently assembled won’t be enough to hold Ukraine, particularly if guerrilla resistance and an insurgency campaign like Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen and Taliban, or the militants in Iraq, ensues. It could soon be a major civil war that could blow back into Russia itself.

For Putin, there might be too many plates to keep spinning once the action starts. There are suggestions that the Kremlin can withstand any sanctions Biden and the Europeans will throw at them. But could they ride out a stock market collapse in Moscow, and exclusion from much of the international banking system?

Russia could threaten to turn off the gas supply to Europe – the EU gets 41 per cent of all its gas from Russia – which puts Germany and Italy, especially, in a bind. But the gas tourniquet is double-edged for Moscow. It cuts off revenue, and throws Russia even more into the arms of China, and on unfavourable terms, given the hard bargains Beijing has recently driven.

There are further developments likely to disquiet the increasingly tight cabal round Putin. First there is the prospect of the renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA of 2015, failing altogether, as the Vienna talks face collapse. This means Iran under President Raisi will go for broke on nuclear arming. Nuclear Iran on its southern border, backing Azerbaijan, supporting the militias in Syria, and the Houthis in Yemen, becomes a very present challenge to Russia.

Syria on its own is a heavy financial as well as military commitment. So too are missions, official and unofficial, through mercenary groups like Wagner in North and sub-Saharan Africa.

The image of Putin as a man in a hurry is reinforced by reports of domestic unease across the vast Russian territory over Covid, whose full impact is not fully appreciated by the outside world. Opinion polls, which have proved pretty reliable, indicate most Russians – much of the citizenry of St. Petersburg and Moscow, for instance – do not favour further military operations in Ukraine.

Putin knows he has to succeed in short order in Ukraine, whatever his grand scheme may be in fact or fantasy. In 2024 he is due to put up for re-election as president, which by the latest rearrangement of the deckchairs of the Russian constitution might put him in power until 2036.

Seasoned Kremlin watchers sense that he is becoming increasingly isolated. “The circle of cronies is getting smaller,” says a senior British diplomat. “He is obsessed with Ukraine and believes it never should have been let go.

“He practices gangster politics,” i.e. no rules but his own. “Salisbury and the Skripals, the treatment of Navalny, are typical – and allowing an ally like Syria to use chemical weapons – which his predecessors Gorbachev and Yeltsin would never have done.”

Putin is beginning to look like the desperate gangster in a desperate hurry, which makes him desperately dangerous.

Justin Webb live in conversation
Justin Webb live in conversation with Iain Martin – 22 February 2022, 6:30pm