Russia is thinning its embassy in Ukraine, a possible hint at Putin’s next move

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“We will be completely surrounded by equal forces,” said the senior Ukrainian security official.

In Washington, US officials say they still believe Mr. Putin has not yet made a decision to invade. They describe him as a tactician rather than a great strategist, and they believe he is constantly weighing a variety of different factors. These include how well he weathered the threat of sanctions against his banks and industry, and whether his demands that Ukraine stop moving toward NATO — and that NATO stop expanding into Russia — get enough attention.

But US officials say Mr Putin may also have concluded that his military advantage risks eroding if the United States and other countries arm Ukraine. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced in an address to Parliament on Monday that the country would begin supplying Ukraine with light, armor-piercing defense weapons. Mr Putin may be tempted to act sooner rather than later.

US officials saw the evacuation of the Russian embassy 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 U.S. official said in a statement.

Ukrainian officials say they saw the Russians leave.

But that leaves the question of what, if anything, the Russians signaled.

It is possible that they were trying to back up claims 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 from former Warsaw Pact countries should be removed need to be removed, such as Poland, which was once allied with the Soviet Union.

It could also be that the Russians were trying to indicate that an attack was brewing when there were no other signals. Indeed, the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border is not increasing at the rate Pentagon officials expected a month ago.

According to the latest US estimates, about 60 tactical battalion groups, known as BTGs, each averaging 800 soldiers are now stationed along the border with Ukraine. Along with other local forces, the Russians have about 77,000 troops on the border, with more on the way. Others put the number closer to 100,000 — much depends on how different forces are counted — but that’s far less than the Pentagon‘s estimate more than a month ago that the total could rise to 175,000.

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