Russia has reportedly reduced the number of personnel at its embassy in Kyiv and other consulates throughout Ukraine over the last several days, reports revealed Monday. The exact motive for the withdrawal of diplomatic personnel is unclear but may indicate a Russian attack is imminent and it wants to avoid its civilians being captured if Ukraine retaliates.
In a statement provided to the New York Times, a U.S. official said, “We have information that indicates the Russian government was preparing to evacuate their family members from the Russian Embassy in Ukraine in late December and early January.” Multiple anonymous U.S. and Ukrainian officials also confirmed the movement.
According to one senior Ukrainian security official, 18 people — mostly the children and wives of Russian diplomats boarded buses from Kyiv back to Moscow. About 30 more Russians left within the ensuing days, from the Kyiv embassy and a Russian consulate in Lviv. The Ukrainian security official said Diplomats at two other Russian consulates have been told to prepare to leave Ukraine.
The quiet evacuations come as tens of thousands of Russian forces have gathered on Ukraine’s borders for months.
The evacuations of Russian diplomats and their families could be interpreted in a number of ways. The evacuations could simply be in response to a perceived security risk, but that could also indicate Russia expects a conflict with Ukraine to escalate. If Russia is to invade Ukraine soon, they may wish to remove their diplomats out of the crossfire.
The evacuations could also be a signal from Russia that diplomacy has stalled and Russia is not willing to negotiate further until the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) consider Russia’s existing demands, including that the U.S. and NATO don’t let Ukraine join the alliance.
The U.S., Ukraine, and NATO have observed other recent signs that Russia may still be planning to invade. While the overall Russian troop presence near the Ukrainian border hasn’t grown in weeks, Russia has reportedly positioned attack helicopters, fighter jets, transport helicopters and logistical units near Ukraine’s border.
The U.S. and Ukraine have also warned of a potential Russian plan to stage an attack on its own forces, frame Ukraine for it and use the attack as a pretext to invade. On Tuesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO has also seen the signs of a staged Russian attack.
“JUST IN: Sec Gen Stoltenberg says #NATO has information confirming US claims of a ‘significant Russian presence of intelligence officers or operatives inside Ukraine,’ Deutsche Welle and NPR reporter Teri Schultz tweeted on Tuesday. “He says it’s “absolutely possible” they’re planning ‘incidents, accidents, false flag operations.'”
Several factors may impact the timing of any potential Russian invasion. While Russia may have troops and military equipment and a satisfactory justification to attack, weather represents another major issue.
Russian forces are reliant on the winter weather to freeze and harden the ground, allowing for easier movement of heavy vehicles across the Ukrainian terrain. Warmer weather poses the risk of allowing the ground to soften and potentially turn into a muddy obstacle for Russian forces. A relatively minor winter has reportedly slowed the rate at which the ground is freezing and a spring thaw could begin by as early as March.
At the rate the ground is currently freezing, a Russian invasion of Ukraine might not be possible until some time in February, which would leave a narrow window to act and still avoid the risk of Russian troops becoming bogged down in the mud.