Russian-language social media posts are helping expose the scale and nature of Moscow’s military mobilization amid rising tensions with NATO, and shedding light on concerns voiced by relatives of troops headed westward for apparent deployment near Ukraine, a joint investigation by RFE/RL’s Russian Service and the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) shows.
The investigation, based in part on reactions to numerous posts on the video-sharing platform TikTok by people who appear to be Russian soldiers as well as exchanges with friends and relatives who authored some of the comments, adds to growing evidence of a Russian military buildup near Ukraine as negotiations between Russia and the West continue to yield no breakthrough.
While the posts give no specific indication of whether President Vladimir Putin has decided to launch a new military offensive targeting Ukraine, they serve as evidence that troops and equipment are being moved en masse from Russia’s Far East and offer a rare glimpse into the fears voiced by relatives of the soldiers.
In about half of the posts, the investigation notes, the friends and relatives of Russian contract soldiers write about the soldiers’ dispatch “for assignment” or “for training.”
Most make clear that the destination of those trips is Belarus, Ukraine’s northern neighbor and a staunch Russian military ally, while others say less specifically that they are going to areas near Ukraine.
The abrupt announcement of joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in Belarus next month has added to concerns that an invasion of Ukraine could be imminent.
“My husband also left for Belarus on January 7,” one woman wrote on social media. In an exchange with RFE/RL’s Russian Service on January 18, the woman, who declined to give her name, said that her husband had left the Zabaikalye region in Russia’s Far East and was now in Brest, near Belarus’s border with Poland.
'Not For Training'
Another woman, from Vladivostok in the Far East, commented on a video posted to social media saying that her partner -- a member of Russia’s 155th naval infantry brigade -- had left “not for training,” implying that he was on a mission that could involve combat. Contacted by an RFE/RL journalist, she said that her partner was being sent “to Ukraine,” without clarifying how she knew this.
Since autumn, U.S. and other officials have been warning that intelligence shows Russia is preparing for a possible new invasion of Ukraine, where it seized the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and has supported separatist forces in the eastern region known as the Donbas since April of that year. Kyiv’s latest estimate is that Russia has amassed some 127,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders.
Russian officials have repeatedly said Moscow is not planning any new invasion of Ukraine. Most of those comments do not rule out an operation that would ostensibly be a response to a provocation by Ukraine.
The White House last week accused Russia of sending saboteurs into eastern Ukraine in order to stage an incident that could provide a pretext for an invasion if Moscow's sweeping demands for changes in European security architecture, including an end to NATO enlargement, are not met.
Russia says that the joint Russian-Belarusian exercises are scheduled to start on February 9 and last 10 days. But the social media comments, and exchanges with their authors, suggest that those who are dispatched to Belarus are often given a much longer time frame, and often no indication of how long they’ll be away.
"There's no clarity as to how many months [they're going for]," one woman wrote.
The analysis of social media profiles sent by the relatives of Russian soldiers suggests that a large proportion of the soldiers heading west from Russia’s Far East belong to groups capable of shoring up a full-scale ground invasion, including military police, special forces, and tactical teams.
The Western intelligence community and independent analysts are divided in their predictions of the most likely form a Russian military campaign against Ukraine may take if one is launched, but most experts agree that a ground invasion leading to the attempted seizure of Ukrainian cities is a small, if distinct, possibility that may leave Russia mired in a protracted conflict.
Posts analyzed separately by CIT further indicate that a large part of the Russian military contingent that arrived in Belarus may have halted its journey far short of the area of joint exercises and based itself instead around the city of Homel, just 40 kilometers from the border with Ukraine.
Claims by relatives of some soldiers that their sons, brothers, or husbands had been ordered to travel for “training” or unspecified assignments contain echoes of 2014, when Russian soldiers sent to the border with Ukraine were not warned in advance that they would be involved in a military conflict, according to accounts shared at the time and subsequently by those who took part.
In its own report on the investigation with RFE/RL’s Russian Service, CIT said that comments referencing hundreds of troops heading west from the Far East suggest that the formations may remain in Belarus and in western Russia for many months to come.