Russian tanks have staged military drills near the Ukrainian border amid fears Vladimir Putin could order an invasion – but one theory suggests the mild winter weather could be putting the Kremlin's plans on ice.
Nato powers are on high alert over the unexplained Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s eastern flank, with Moscow set to hold tense negotiations with the alliance on Wednesday.
Although Nato says Russia is ready for combat, US intelligence officials reportedly believe that Moscow’s room for manoeuvre is limited by relatively mild temperatures, meaning the ground in much of Ukraine is muddy rather than frozen.
Officials told The New York Times that the soft, wet conditions might push back any Russian offensive until at least February, to prevent troops, tanks and heavy equipment becoming stuck in a quagmire.
The newspaper reported that President Joe Biden’s administration had enlisted meteorologists to predict Ukraine’s weather in the coming weeks, potentially shedding light on Russia’s plans.
Any frozen ground would start thawing again in the spring, creating further muddy hazards for invading troops.
Russia is thought to have about 100,000 troops massed near Ukraine, whose territory it previously breached in 2014 by annexing Crimea. It denies planning a full-scale invasion of its ex-Soviet neighbour.
In the latest drills held on Tuesday, Russia’s Defence Ministry said about 3,000 troops had held combat training and mock battles in four regions of south-western Russia.
The live-fire military training “obviously goes in exactly the opposite direction” of the de-escalation Washington wants to see, said US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
She said de-escalation should include pulling back troops, negotiating seriously with its neighbours and ending what she called a “massive disinformation” campaign and attempts to destabilise Ukraine.
Any invasion would be met with “massive economic measures, including those that have not been used before”, she said. Ukraine is not a member of Nato, meaning the alliance would not be expected to send troops.
Russia and the US held talks in Geneva on Monday, which ended with no clear breakthrough. The Nato talks on Wednesday will be followed by a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on Thursday.
Moscow is insisting that Ukraine, and other countries, such as Georgia, Finland and Sweden, must never be admitted to Nato. Western powers counter that this for the nations concerned to decide, not Russia.