Moscow this week significantly increased its military presence at several strategic locations along the Ukrainian border, according to satellite images released on Thursday. The question now is, how can this military buildup be explained and what are the risks for Ukraine and NATO?
Satellite images released by the US space technology company Thursday confirm increasingly urgent warnings from the United States and its allies urging its citizens over the weekend to leave Ukraine immediately in the face of an “imminent” threat of Russian invasion.
“These images show either the biggest hoax in modern military history or an expression of Russia’s desire to show the world that it is preparing for a military operation,” Glenn Grant, a leading expert at the Baltic Security Foundation, said in an interview with France 24. .
Satellite images taken on Wednesday and Thursday by Maxar, a Colorado-based space technology company, show the deployment of additional troops and military equipment in three regions surrounding Ukraine: Crimea in the south, around the Russian training camp at Kursk near eastern Ukraine, and in Belarus to northern Ukraine.
The largest deployment of Russian forces was in the strategic Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. New photos show the deployment of several hundred troops, and at least 500 military tents and vehicles north of Simferopol, the Crimean capital. Armored vehicles also reached the north of Crimea near the coastal town of Slavni.
Camp tents and equipment at Oktyabrskoye Airport, North Simferopol, Crimea, Thursday, February 10, 2022. AP/Maxar These military deployments came as several warships — including amphibious assault ships — recently arrived in the Black Sea. “This may be another way to put pressure on Kiev, but it is expensive to bring these warships to the south, and to have them arrive at the same time as the deployment of new forces into Crimea shows a willingness to be ready to act, if necessary,” Grant said.
The Russian Navy on Saturday staged exercises in the Black Sea even as Moscow dismissed “hysteria” over US warnings of a possible Russian attack.
“More than 30 ships of the Black Sea Fleet went into the sea from Sebastopol and Novorossiysk according to the exercise plan,” the Russian Defense Ministry said Saturday morning, referring to two coastal cities in Crimea.
“The aim of the exercises is to defend the coast of Crimea, the bases of the forces of the Black Sea Fleet as well as the country’s economic sector … from potential military threats,” the ministry added.
Troop exit from barracks and field hospitals, the renewed Russian military activity in the south must be viewed in the broader context of Russian troop movements along the border with eastern Ukraine, according to Grant. “So far, satellite images have shown the teams stationed in the barracks.
Now, some of those soldiers started to move towards the border. This does not necessarily mean that an attack is imminent, the expert on Russian military affairs said, but these soldiers cannot stay on the road indefinitely without doing anything.
Tracey German, who specializes in Russian military operations at King’s College London, added in an interview with France that satellite images also show, for the first time, “the establishment of a field hospital, which is also a way to ramp up pressure.” 24. The presence of a field hospital indicates that Russia is studying the possibility of combat and the necessity of caring for the wounded on the battlefield.
Troops were also sent to reinforce the garrison at the Kursk training camp in Russia. The presence of the Russian armed forces, especially armored vehicles, at this site has alarmed observers since late December 2021. This camp is located just north of Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population. “There is, in fact, a highway leading from Kursk to Kharkiv, which can facilitate logistics and logistics,” explained a German.
In Belarus, “Flying Tanks of the Russian Army” Meanwhile Moscow continues to clear its Eastern Front as its forces move west, bringing its soldiers back from as far as Siberia to Belarus.
Russia also moved military vehicles and helicopters near the Belarusian city of Gomel, which is about 25 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. It’s the first time you’ve seen helicopters in the area. There also appears to be a field hospital on site.
“These are combat helicopters that serve as flying tanks for the Russian army,” Grant noted. The decision was a strategic choice because “the border between Belarus and Ukraine is difficult to cross for conventional tanks due to the terrain,” Ofer Friedman, a Russian military specialist at Kings College London, noted in an interview with France 24.
The Pinsk Marshes, one of the largest wetlands in Europe, extend along part of the Belarus-Ukraine border. The Washington Post noted that “Warmer weather from late February through March brings with it areas of snowmelt, resulting in muddy conditions less than ideal for heavy military vehicles.”
Combat helicopters are deployed at Zyabrovka Airport in Gomel, Belarus, Thursday, February 10, 2022. © AP / Maxar In addition, troops and multiple combat groups are still deployed near the Belarusian city of Reshetsa. “They indicate an increased Russian presence in the area, which is about 200 miles (320 kilometers) east of where the joint Russian-Belarusian exercises began Thursday,” CNN said.
“It is as if Moscow wants to draw the attention of the West to the area where these exercises are taking place in the hope that they will not look for where other forces are deployed along the border,” Grant said.
For NATO, is the threat stronger than execution? But the important question is whether the additional Russian reinforcement, captured by the new photos, allows us to learn more about Moscow’s intentions. “If we compare it with photos taken two months ago, it is clear that the overall picture looks more aggressive and gives the impression of a higher level of Russian preparedness,” said a German.
The fact that Russian forces are scattered everywhere, from south to north of the border, can also confuse the issue, according to analysts interviewed by France 24. In the age of satellite imagery and modern intelligence, Moscow has few illusions about its ability to muster forces secretly. By overtly doubling down on potential attack options, the Russian military can hope that the Ukrainians and their allies will not know where to strike Russia first.
Amid growing fears of a Russian invasion, Ukraine on Saturday urged its citizens to remain calm and avoid panic. “At the moment, it is very important to maintain calm and cohesion within the country and to avoid destabilizing and panic-promoting actions,” the Ukrainian foreign ministry said in a statement.
Friedman suggested that Russia’s “excessive militarization” on the border might, paradoxically, be a sign that there would be no fighting. He explained that “Moscow’s goal may be to attack Ukraine or NATO. In this second hypothesis, we must think about the most effective and rapid way to weaken this institution.”
This, he said, would not be by invading Ukraine, but by “maintaining a permanent and always strong military tension on the border.” As the famous chess player, Aaron Nemzovic, wrote in “My System” one of the reference books for chess theory, “The threat is stronger than execution.”
In this case, Friedman said, Russia’s increased military presence on the Ukrainian border is “a way to play with the nerves of NATO countries and force them to centralize.” Since Russia began massing forces late last year, there have been differences between the positions of the various NATO members. The US and UK are more willing to support Ukraine militarily than Germany, while France has tried to follow a diplomatic path. Freeman noted that “NATO had already had weaknesses before. It is possible that Moscow simply hoped that by maintaining sufficient pressure, the organization would eventually collapse.”
This article was translated from the original in French