Russian forces massing near Ukraine’s borders can only remain in position for a few days before they have to be sent back to nearby bases or risk their capability being significantly degraded, western officials and experts believe.
That means that President Vladimir Putin will come under increasing pressure to use them in a full invasion of Ukraine – or send them back to staging areas, still in Russia’s south or west, but tens or even hundreds of kilometres back.
Such advance positions, often with poor protection from the cold, can be held only for a short period – and there is some evidence on social media of the poor conditions endured by soldiers near the border.
Postings spotted by military analyst Rob Lee on Monday showed about 100 soldiers camped out – or rather lying down – at a train station about 20km from Ukraine’s border, without rations and having to buy food for themselves.
Russian troops based in Belarus, in forests near the town of Khoyniki, 50km from the Ukraine border, were described by one local a few days ago as people who “drink a lot and sell a lot of their diesel fuel”, suggesting a lack of discipline despite the heightened political tensions.
Western intelligence estimates that roughly a third of the overall Russian forces are now believed to be “tactically deployed” in frontline positions “poised for operations”. Their movements have been monitored closely using aerial and other reconnaissance for several weeks, as they edge closer to the border.
On Monday, one senior official said they believed it would only be possible for Russia to maintain them in their forward positions for “a matter of days” – a conclusion that is endorsed by independent experts.
Nick Reynolds, a land warfare analyst with the Rusi thinktank, said: “If the troops are to be used then they will likely be used very soon, while they are as fresh as possible” and concurred with the assessment that commanders would want to move them on in “a…