Moscow this week significantly increased its military presence at several strategic locations along the Ukrainian border, according to satellite images released Thursday. The question now, is how can this military buildup be interpreted and what are the stakes for Ukraine and NATO?
Satellite images released by a US-based space technology company on Thursday underscore the increasingly urgent warnings by the US and its allies urging their citizens over the weekend to leave Ukraine immediately in the face of an “imminent” threat of a Russian invasion.
“These images show either the biggest bluff in modern military history or an expression of Russia’s desire to show the world that they are preparing a military operation,” said Glen Grant, a senior expert at the Baltic Security Foundation.
The satellite images taken on Wednesday and Thursday by Maxar, a Colorado-based space technology company, show deployments of additional troops and military equipment in three areas surrounding Ukraine: Crimea in the south, around the Russian training camp of Kursk near eastern Ukraine, and in Belarus to Ukraine’s north.
The biggest deployment of Russian troops was in Crimea, the strategic peninsula that was annexed by Russia in 2014. The new images show several hundred troop deployments, at least 500 tents and military vehicles north of the Crimean capital, Simferopol. Armored vehicles have also arrived in northern Crimea, near the coastal town of Slavne.
These military deployments came as several warships – including amphibious assault ships – recently arrived in the Black Sea. “It may be another way to put pressure on Kyiv, but bringing these warships south is expensive, and having them arrive at the same time as new troops deployments in Crimea shows a willingness to be ready to act, if necessary,” said Grant.
Russia’s navy on Saturday launched exercises in the Black Sea even as Moscow dismissed the “hysteria” around US warnings of a likely Russian attack.
“Over 30 vessels from the Black Sea fleet took to the sea from Sebastopol and Novorossiysk in accordance with the exercise plan,” the Russian defence ministry said Saturday morning, referring to two port cities in Crimea.
“The aim of the exercise is to defend the coast of the Crimea peninsula, the bases of the forces of the Black Sea fleet as well as the country’s economic sector … from possible military threats,” the ministry added.
Troops out of barracks, field hospitals
The renewed Russian military activity in the south must be seen in the broader context of Russian troop movement along the border with eastern Ukraine, according to Grant. “Until now, satellite images have shown divisions stationed in barracks.
Now, some of these soldiers have started to move towards the border. This does not necessarily mean that an attack is imminent, but these soldiers cannot remain on the road indefinitely without doing anything,” said the expert on Russian military issues.
The satellite photos also show, for the first time, “the installation of a field hospital, which is also a way to intensify the pressure”, added Tracey German, a specialist in Russian military operations at King’s College London, in an interview with FRANCE 24. The presence of a field hospital indicates that Russia is considering the possibility of fighting and the need to take care of the wounded on the battlefield.
Troops have also been sent to reinforce the garrison at the Kursk training camp in Russia. The presence of Russian armed forces, and in particular armoured vehicles, at this location has worried observers since late December 2021. This camp is directly north of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has a large Russian speaking population. “There is, in fact, a highway that leads from Kursk to Kharkiv, which can facilitate logistical and supply issues,” explained German.
In Belarus, ‘flying tanks for the Russian army’
Meanwhile Moscow continues to clear its eastern front as it moves troops towards the west, repatriating soldiers from as far as Siberia to Belarus.
Russia has also moved military vehicles and helicopters near the Belarusian city of Gomel, which lies around 25 kilometres from the Ukrainian border. “It is the first time helicopters have been seen in the area. There also appears to be a field hospital at the site,” noted CNN.
“These are combat helicopters, which act as flying tanks for the Russian army,” noted Grant. The decision was a strategic choice because “the border between Belarus and Ukraine is difficult to cross for traditional tanks due to the terrain”, noted Ofer Fridman, a Russian military specialist at King’s College London, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
The Pinsk Marshes, one of Europe’s largest wetland areas, stretch along part of the border between Belarus and Ukraine. “Warmer weather starting in later February and into March brings with it thawing grounds, leading to muddy conditions that are less than ideal for heavy military vehicles,” noted the Washington Post.
Additionally, troops and multiple battle groups remain deployed near the Belarusian city of Rechitsa. “They suggest a growing Russian presence in the area, which is some 200 miles (320 kilometres) east of where joint Russian-Belarus exercises got under way Thursday,” CNN reported.
“It’s as if Moscow wants to draw the West’s attention to the area where these training exercises are taking place in the hope that they won’t look where other troops are deployed along the border,” said Grant.
For NATO, is the threat stronger than the execution?
The critical question though is whether the additional Russian buildup, captured by the new photos, enables us to know more about Moscow’s intentions. “If we compare them with the images from two months ago, it is clear that the general picture appears more aggressive and gives the impression of a higher level of Russian preparation,” said German.
The fact that Russian troops are deployed everywhere, from the south to the north of the border, can also serve to confuse the issue, according to analysts interviewed by FRANCE 24. In the age of satellite images and modern intelligence, Moscow has few illusions about its ability to mass troops secretly. By very openly multiplying the options for a possible offensive, the Russian army can hope that the Ukrainians and their allies will not know from where Russia will strike first.
Amid mounting fears of a Russian invasion, Ukraine on Saturday urged its citizens to keep calm and avoid panicking. “At the moment, it is critically important to remain calm, to consolidate inside the country, to avoid destabilising actions and those that sow panic,” the Ukrainian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Russia’s “over-militarisation” at the borders may, paradoxically, also be a sign that there will be no fighting, suggested Fridman. “Moscow may have the objective of attacking Ukraine or NATO. In this second hypothesis, we must think about the most effective and rapid method to weaken this institution,” he explained.
This would not be, according to him, by invading Ukraine, but rather “by maintaining a permanent and always strong military tension at the border”. As the famous chess player, Aron Nimzowitsch, wrote in “My System”, one of the reference books of chess theory, “The threat is stronger than the execution”.
In which case, the growing Russian military presence on Ukraine’s border is “a way of playing with the nerves of NATO countries and forces them to position themselves”, said Fridman. Since Russia began amassing troops late last year, there have been dissensions between the positions of different NATO members. The US and the UK are more ready to support Ukraine militarily than Germany, while France has attempted a diplomatic path. “NATO already had weaknesses before,” Friman noted. “It is possible that Moscow simply hopes that by maintaining sufficient pressure, the organisation will eventually crack.”