Russia is reducing its embassy in Ukraine, a possible clue to Putin’s next move

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

In Washington, US officials say they still assess that Mr. Putin has not yet made the decision to invade. They describe him more as a tactician than a great strategist, and they think he constantly weighs a multitude of different factors. Among them is how he could resist sanctions threats against his banks and his industry, and if his demands that Ukraine stop veering towards NATO – and that NATO stop spreading towards the Russia – are getting enough attention.

But US officials say Mr Putin may also have concluded that with the US and other countries arming Ukraine, its military advantage may slip away. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced in a speech to parliament on Monday that the country would start supplying Ukraine with light anti-armour defensive weapons. Mr. Putin might be tempted to act sooner rather than later.

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their demands that Ukraine can never join NATO and that troops, nuclear weapons and other heavy weapons must be withdrawn from former Warsaw Pact states, such as Poland, formerly allied with the Soviet Union.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.

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