Muddy terrain and the need for more troops on the ground make any large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine unlikely until January at the earliest, military analysts in Moscow and the West say, creating a window of diplomacy to steer President Vladimir Putin away from a war.
Those judgments come as a combination of open source reports and images gives growing credence to U.S. intelligence assessments of a build-up of soldiers and equipment toward Ukraine’s borders. Ukrainian military maps also show the changing distribution of Russian forces.The U.S. has shared the intelligence and its own maps with some North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, warning that Russia could be weighing a large-scale incursion. U.S. officials said in their briefings that Putin’s intentions remain unknown, but any operation, should he decide to act, would likely involve double the number of battle groups currently in position and could come in the early months of next year.
Putin has denied plans to invade, having annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed separatist fighting in eastern Ukraine.”In this season you have what we call Rasputitsa, which is mud,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, a Moscow-based military analyst for the Jamestown Foundation. Yet for any attack on eastern Ukraine, he said, Russian generals would want to move fast to outflank the main Ukrainian force around the conflict-ridden Donetsk and Lugansk regions, before its soldiers have time to dig in.”We have to be able to move our tanks and other vehicles off the roads to do that, which in the black earth region down there would be impossible right now. Once the frosts come you can move in any direction you want,” Felgenhauer said.In addition, Russian commanders would want to assemble a similar-sized force to the last major build-up around Ukraine in March this year, according to Felgenhauer. Western analysts estimated that at just above 100,000 soldiers.
An attacking force would normally seek to be two-to-three times the number of troops it expects to meet, according to a former senior U.S. security official who asked not to be named. Judging by the publicly available maps and data, the person said, Putin does not currently have the numbers for a full-scale invasion.A Nov. 22 Ukrainian military map seen by Bloomberg echoes the U.S. assessment of a renewed build-up near southern and eastern Ukraine. It depicts 43 battle groups, consisting of 94,000 troops in place around Ukraine, compared to 53 battle groups at the end of April. An earlier version of the same map was published by the Military Times.