With tensions still high between Russia and the US over Ukraine, President Putin has ordered more attack helicopters and ground-attack aircraft to be sent to join the forces massing on the Russian side of the border.
While troop numbers haven’t soared quite as high as Washington analysts were predicting late last year, there are still some 100,000 military personnel stationed within striking distance of the Ukrainian border.
Now reinforced by ground-support helicopters and jets, Putin’s forces are poised perfectly for a sudden strike into Ukrainian territory.
There have even been suggestions that Russian short-range tactical nuclear weapons are stationed close to the potential conflict zone.
However, Russia is running out of time. According to Pentagon analysts quoted in the New York Times, the ideal time for an invasion would be in late winter, when the ground is frozen hard enough for tanks and other heavy vehicles to move at speed.
Once the Spring thaw begins, in early March, muddy conditions will make any potential invasion a slower and more difficult proposition.
Any aggressive move on Putin’s part could swiftly escalate into a confrontation between Russia and America. US Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint and E-8 JSTARS surveillance planes have been patrolling the Ukrainian border region for several weeks, and while Ukraine is not a full member of NATO it’s expected that Western nations would rally to support Ukrainian troops against Russian aggression.
In a bid to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led talks with her Russian opposite number, Sergei A. Ryabkov in Geneva this week.
However “actual progress is going to be very difficult to make, if not impossible, in an environment of escalation by Russia,” according to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
A major sticking point will be that President Putin will not accept NATO membership for Ukraine – while the US will be reluctant to see an independent state go undefended in the face of Russian empire-building.
While officials within the US government try to decide how to respond if Russia does invade, an uneasy ceasefire is in place along the Ukrainian border for now. But one mistake on either side could easily lead to a major armed conflict.
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