Satellite photos raise concerns over reinforcement of Russian military near Ukraine

Reports that the Russians are moving military equipment about 250 kilometers from the border raised eyebrows in Washington. And Ukrainian forces have deployed combat drones along the battle lines that separate them from pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region.

On Monday, US Department of Defense spokesman Admiral John Kirby said the Pentagon was “aware of public reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine.”

Satellite imagery showed Russian equipment – including self-propelled guns, main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles – in motion at a training ground about 300 km from the border.

But Ukraine’s defense ministry said on Monday it had not recorded any “further transfers of Russian military units, weapons and equipment to Ukraine’s state border.”

On Tuesday, the Defense Ministry said that around 90,000 Russian troops were “near the border and in the temporarily occupied territories” as well as in the Black Sea.

The Ukrainian Defense Ministry added that Russia had established a practice of “transfer and accumulation of military units with the aim of maintaining tension in the region and political pressure on neighboring countries”.

Kirby said the United States was watching closely: “I can’t speak to Russian intentions, but we are certainly watching the region closely, as we always do. Any escalation or aggression would be of great concern to the United States. ”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Tuesday: “The movement of our military equipment or our army units through the territory of the Russian Federation is exclusively our business.

“Russia has never threatened anyone, is not threatening and does not represent a danger to anyone,” he insisted.

Observers say Russia’s actions deserve to be watched closely.

“At the moment, it’s a developing situation. It’s not ‘nothing is happening’ and it doesn’t mean that there will be an offensive operation tomorrow, ”says Michael Kofman, a Wilson Center researcher who studies the Russian military.

Closer view of armored units and support equipment in Yelnya, Russia.

Allegations of “provocation”

We’ve been here before – several times – since the separatists, with Russian backing, entered eastern Ukraine in 2014.
In the past, heightened tensions have been reduced to nothing. Russian units gathered near the border last spring – sounding the alarm bells in western capitals – but eventually returned to base.

But hopes that the frozen conflict can be defused through negotiations sponsored by European governments and the United States are dying.

Russian forces are massing on the Ukrainian border.  Bluff or not, Putin is playing with fire

Russia reacted swiftly to Ukraine’s use of Turkish-made combat drones for the first time in the conflict. One of these drones struck a separatist position last week.

“We are seeing attempts to provocate, to provoke a reaction from the militias and to drag Russia into a kind of combat action,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian state television on Monday. .

Popular Russian TV host Vladimir Soloviev went further, saying Ukraine is provoking separatist-held “Republics” to take “retaliatory action, which means major war.” Under these circumstances, Moscow will be faced with a serious choice.

Russian rhetoric towards Ukraine has hardened in recent months.

President Vladimir Putin and his predecessor Dmitry Medvedev have written essays describing Ukraine as a vassal of the West, even going so far as to suggest that it is not a real country.

In a lengthy article in July, Putin said that “the formation of an ethnically pure Ukrainian state, aggressive towards Russia, is comparable in its consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us.”

“Ukraine’s true sovereignty is only possible in partnership with Russia,” he wrote.

Self-propelled artillery is pictured in this image courtesy of Maxar.
Combined arms units are pictured in Yelnya, western Russia, on November 1 in an image provided by Maxar.

Pivot from east to west

Moscow’s strategy aims to deter Ukraine from flirting with closer ties with NATO and the European Union, an east-to-west pivot that would fuel historic fears of Russian encirclement.

These fears intensified when the former Soviet Baltic states joined NATO, as well as several former members of the Warsaw Pact, such as Romania and Poland.

Just last month, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reiterated US support for Ukraine’s “reorientation”, pledging to “continue to support the sovereignty, territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Ukraine ”.

Ukraine’s accession to NATO would be an “extremely dangerous” decision that would trigger Russian retaliatory measures, retorted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Peskov condemned what he called “aggressive expansionist tendencies, especially on the part of NATO and other countries,” adding that “Russia has always taken steps to ensure its security and will continue to do so.

In Ukraine, Defense Secretary Austin calls on Russia to end

The United States, which is already supplying Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank missiles, has also pledged to support Ukrainian forces through security assistance, including efforts to strengthen the country’s maritime capacity. US warships patrol the Black Sea on a regular basis, much to Russia’s dismay.

Russia’s last weapon in the conflict is not camouflaged. Instead, it goes through a pipeline. The Nord Stream 2 (NS2) gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany is nearing completion, worrying Ukraine, which has been a transit route for Russian gas through its extensive pipeline network.

“Putin says to everyone in front: ‘You allow NS2 to become operational or you will have no more gas,” according to Yuriy Vitrenko, general manager of Naftogaz in Ukraine.

Vitrenko told the Financial Times that “[If] there will be no physical transit through Ukraine, this increases the chances of a full scale war between Russia and Ukraine.

The White House said at the weekend that US President Joe Biden spoke with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about efforts “to ensure that Russia cannot manipulate natural gas flows for nefarious political ends.”

As of yet, there is no indication that all of the adversarial language translates into a higher level of hostilities along what is known as “the line of contact,” but Russian calculations are never easy to assess.

Christi C. Elwood