As of March 4, according to a map in the British Daily Telegraph, the standing military of Ukraine comprised little more than 150 planes and 65,000 troops. Across the border in Russia, the standing military in the western district (Moscow) included 278 planes and over 150,000 troops. The southern military district (Rostov-on-Don) had some 200 planes and 150,000 troops. In other words, before there was any "massing," the Russians already had more than 300,000 troops stationed in regions bordering Ukraine, presumably at a variety of distances from the border.
On March 12, the British Daily Mail reported a Ukraine government claim that "80,000 Russian troops were massing on its borders." The story included two maps, one of which showed four areas on the border where the Russians were reportedly massing 80,000 troops, 270 tanks, 180 armored vehicles, 90 helicopters, 140 planes, and so on, without any indication how they were divided up. The second map purported to show that Russia planned to occupy all of southern Ukraine from Kharkiv to Odessa, which wasn't fully consistent with the map showing where the troops were "massed."
That was the government in Kiev, or the Daily Mail, crying wolf. The next day, March 13, the UK Guardian reported that "Moscow has deployed 10,000 troops along its border with Ukraine," no massing, and clearly discounting the 25,000 or so in Crimea. Russia confirmed the 10,00 in "several border regions" in a training exercise that would last two weeks." The New York Times the same day reported the same story based on the same source somewhat more hysterically, under the fundamentally false headline:
Russian Troops Mass at Border With Ukraine
The Russians continued to deny the Times's definition of reality, which President Obama said "we have seen" massing along that border under the guise of military exercises." Whatever the president may have seen, there was no conclusive visual evidence offered to the public. What pictures there have been to date have shown little that could be called "massing," and were often pictures that could have been taken anywhere, any time. That includes the purported classified satellite images tweeted by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt on April 9 that he claims show a "buildup" near Rostov-on-Don, which is some fifty miles from the Ukraine border.
By the end of March, Ukraine was claiming Russia had 100,000 troops on the border (later reduced to "still over 10,000"), while the Russians were claiming that they had allowed foreign observers to probe border regions four times and that "even Ukrainian inspectors [agreed] there were no major military activities being carried out." Fox News said the Russians were just hiding their troops. The official U.S. estimate of massed Russian troops stabilized at around 40,000 (where it remains), while the European estimate is 30,000. As of April 7, at the joint meeting in Vienna of the Forum for Security Cooperation and the Permanent Council, the U.S. remained officially dissatisfied with Russian responses to formal inquiries as to the precise nature and purpose of forces deployed near the Ukraine border.
The United States currently has 67,000 troops in Europe, far from Ukraine, with 40,000 in Germany, 11,000 in Italy, and 9,500 in Britain. The total in 1991, before the Soviet Union collapsed, was 285,000.
Whatever the reality of the positions of Russian troops in Russia, there's no credible evidence they exist in threatening strength. It could be true, but even those who have looked for them reportedly can't find them. Ukraine is inherently unstable and has long existed in a nearly continuous state of chronic crisis. But the engaged participants all have reasons to perpetuate the spectre of massed Russian troops, whether they're there or not: the Russians for leverage and mystique; the Ukrainians for unity and support; the west for posturing.
And there's another constituency with a clear vested interested in pushing the Russian threat toward a new Cold War: arms makers (excuse me: "defense contractors"). As the NATO secretary general said quite plainly at the NATO Transformation Seminar, April 8:
"The reality is that Europeans have disarmed too much and for too long. In NATO, we have agreed a defence spending guideline of 2% of Gross Domestic Product. Too few Allies meet this guideline. And too many have moved too far in the other direction. This is the time to stop the cuts and start reversing the trend."
From that perspective, there are likely some who are afraid that Russia won't invade Ukraine, or that China won't invade the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.