Early on Wednesday Russian forces were filmed leaving the occupied territory of Ossetia in Georgia, headed for the Ukrainian front in a rumbling convoy of tanks and other heavy armour.
The footage, posted multiple times on social media and from different viewpoints, seemed to confirm that after three weeks of heavy fighting, Moscow is seeking to bolster its forces in Ukraine by bringing in fresh troops from elsewhere.
Some have taken that as a sign of Russia's faltering attack. But it also raises the question about whether the cycle of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine is little more than a ploy to regroup and win time while reinforcements arrive.
Even ahead of the invasion figures such as retired Gen David Petraeus, the architect of the US's 2007-2008 surge in Iraq, contended that Russia lacked the forces it needed for counter-insurgency. Today the question is whether Moscow even has the troops it needs to take the territory it seeks.
“Russia is increasingly seeking to generate additional troops to bolster and replace its personnel losses in Ukraine,” Britain’s ministry of defence said this week. To do that Moscow is redeploying forces from as far away as Russia’s “eastern military district, Pacific fleet and Armenia”.
“It is also increasingly seeking to exploit irregular sources such as private military companies, Syrian and other mercenaries,” it said.
The US has estimated that about 6,000 Russian troops have died so far; the Ukrainians believe the figure is over twice that. By contrast, Moscow said on March 2nd that 498 had died. In armed conflicts the number of wounded is typically several times the number of deaths.
Whatever the real figure of deaths and injuries, Russia’s roughly 200,000-strong original invading force has struggled to maintain overstretched supply lines and encircle and then take major cities.
"The Russians are desperately short of manpower," said Jack Watling, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. "They have advanced along multiple axes and divided their forces. If they were operating at a high tempo and had been able to do what they set out to then it would make sense, but given the low motivation of troops what they have actually managed to do is fix themselves in several, independent urban battles – and in each of those they lack the mass to take the cities they are sieging by assault."
Although Russian troops continue to press forward in the south and southeast, Ukrainian counter-attacks have slowed Russia's attempted pincer movement on Kyiv. Instead Russian forces have stepped up the tempo of artillery barrages – as they have on other cities, such as Kharkiv.
Chris Donnelly, an adviser to four former Nato secretaries general on Soviet and Russian military tactics, argues that Russia's manpower problems stretch back decades.
He said Russian military planners had long been aware of the constraints of using a conscript army and the low morale that troops tend to have as a result.
Russia’s extensive use of artillery platforms and focus on technologies to automate processes such as loading shells in tanks are designed to reduce reliance on young men on the front line.
“For years, in a sense, the Russians have been trying to build an army without soldiers – mainly because they were aware of the vulnerability of their own troops and their willingness to fight,” Donnelly said, while noting that the Ukraine invasion has exposed that approach’s flaws. “There has been a serious miscalculation from the general staff’s point of view.”
Analysts say that troops brought in from Russia’s eastern military district are generally viewed as less effective than better prepared units from the western military district.
Using foreign fighters, such as the 16,000 Syrians that the Russian ministry of defence has said are ready to fight in Ukraine, also offers only a partial solution.
Fighters from tropical Africa and or those used to fighting in desert regions of the Middle East may be less effective on the Ukrainian battlefield. "None of their combat experience will carry over. They are not familiar with the terrain and they have no strong bond or commitment to the cause," Watling said.
“There is a component here where they [the Russians] are cynically thinking that this is going to be bloody and grim, and there will be a domestic political issue with casualties – so if it’s not Russians going back in body bags then that’s much better for Putin.”
Nevertheless, some analysts contend that invading forces often encounter delays only to reorganise to overcome logistical shortfalls.
Anthony King, chair of war studies at University of Warwick, suggests the stuttering talks between Ukraine and Russia may be an indicator that Moscow is seeking to win time to revitalise its assault.
“My own view is that it’s just the Russians stringing the Ukrainians along. If Russia loses many more troops maybe then it won’t be a cynical ploy. But at this point it feels like a tactical pause,” he said, allowing Russian forces to regroup, reinforce and sort out their logistics.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022