Western officials ‘see Russian reinforcements’ but Ukrainians still sing

Are claims of Russian withdrawal de-escalation or deception? Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports

There’s a karaoke bar a few hundred yards from the hotel in Kyiv where we are staying. They are expecting to do a decent trade tonight, for a Tuesday. The streets around it are relatively busy and as the weather creeps above freezing, people are starting to venture out a little more during the evening. It doesn’t feel like the eve of an invasion - but this is the night before the day identified by American intelligence agencies as the possible moment for a sudden and dramatic assault by the Russian military. Yet some Ukrainians are optimistic - they see hope in the statement by Russia’s ministry of defence that commanders have ordered some troops to return to their bases from positions close to the border.

In London and Washington, that optimism is being roundly dismissed. In fact, western officials say they have seen the “opposite” of a Russian withdrawal.

“We see the continuing build up of capabilities” one official said, adding “they have all the capabilities they need in place”.

Where are Russian troops, and how many are there?

“Putin is slightly obsessed with Ukraine” an official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another official claimed that even if some Russian forces withdraw, they are likely to be replaced, with troops going in and out of the border areas where the military are stationed, perhaps leaving military equipment behind. Their assessments remain gloomy, despite some hopeful interpretations of Russia’s language. The officials say that even if an invasion does not happen in the next two days, there remains a strong possibility it will come slightly later. They are clear: despite claims of ‘withdrawal’ today, nothing has changed. Some Ukrainians will come onto the streets tomorrow to celebrate a hastily-arranged ‘day of unity’ by waving flags and singing the national anthem. For many they will be sending a message to Putin - for others it is an attempt to dismiss the stark predictions about incursions, invasions and death coming from some western governments. A lot could happen before then, but at the karaoke bar they’re expecting a good night.

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