US officials saw the evacuations of Russian embassies coming. “We have information indicating that the Russian government was preparing to evacuate their family members from the Russian Embassy in Ukraine in late December and early January,” a US official said in a statement.
Ukrainian officials say they saw the Russians leave.
But that leaves open the question of what, if anything, the Russians were reporting.
It is possible that they were trying to bolster the argument that the United States and its Western allies should take seriously their demands that Ukraine can never join NATO and that troops, nuclear weapons and other heavy weapons must be withdrawn from former Warsaw Pact states, such as Poland, formerly allied with the Soviet Union.
It could also be that the Russians were trying to indicate that an attack was coming, although there were no other signals. In fact, the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border is not increasing at the rate that Pentagon officials expected a month ago.
According to the latest US estimates, around 60 battalion tactical groups, known as BTGs and each averaging 800 soldiers, are now in place on the border with Ukraine. Combined with other local forces, the Russians have about 77,000 troops on the border, with more on the way. Others put the figure closer to 100,000 – it all depends on how the different forces are counted – but that’s well below the Pentagon’s estimate more than a month ago that the number total could reach 175,000.
US and European intelligence and military officials say Mr Putin may be waiting for the ground to freeze, which will make it easier for heavy equipment to cross the border. Or it builds slowly, for diplomatic advantage, as it awaits a written response from the Biden administration and NATO to its demands to return NATO’s military posture to what it was a while ago. 15 years – much further from the borders of Russia.
While US officials still believe Mr. Putin is undecided on his next move, officials in Kyiv are assessing what an attack might look like, should it occur. It could take the form of an all-out invasion, the Ukrainian security official said. Or Russia could launch a cyberattack on Ukraine’s energy grid — far larger than those carried out in 2015 and 2016 — combined with a military escalation in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist forces remain deeply entrenched.