Russia is continuing to amass attack and transport helicopters and ground attack fighter jets near the Russian border with Ukraine, according to U.S. officials who spoke with the New York Times on Monday. The military vehicle movements indicate Russia may still be moving towards an invasion of its neighbor.
The number of Russian troops close to the Ukrainian border stands at about 100,000 troops, despite earlier U.S. assessments that Russian troop numbers could grow to 175,000 in December and early January. While Russia has not increased the overall number of troops on Ukraine’s border, it has continued to move in the types of attack vehicles that could be called upon to support a Russian invasion attempt.
Russia has continued to amass troops on Ukraine’s borders for weeks. The U.S. and Russia have held several rounds of talks in an effort to deescalate tensions around Ukraine, but Russia’s latest actions indicate it could still move forward with some kind of attack on Ukraine.
In addition to augmenting its existing troop buildup with more attack and transport aircraft, Russia appears to have brought in more units specializing in logistics. While attack aircraft could help Russian ground combat troops overwhelm Ukrainian defenses, the logistics units would be needed to keep supplies flowing across the border and allow Russian forces to push further west into Ukraine.
The U.S. is continuing to search for signs Russia will go forward with any invasion plans. Among the things the U.S. is watching for are indications Russia is moving any of its tactical nuclear weapons near the Ukrainian border. Russian officials already indicated last month that deployment of tactical nuclear weapons could be on the table.
The U.S. has recently deployed Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft and E-8 JSTARS ground-surveillance planes to monitor Russian military activities near Ukraine.
While the availability of troops and military equipment is one factor in Russia’s plans, 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.