Russian troops have been captured on camera in a new location and it’s a very worrying sign for peace in the area.
Russian troops are striking camp – emptying pre-prepared assembly points and pitching tents alongside their armoured vehicles in positions just a few dozen kilometres from Ukraine.
Moscow has repeatedly denied it plans to attack the former Soviet state.
And the Kremlin today labelled concerns over its ongoing preparations as “scaremongering”.
“What if we would say that US could seize London in a week and cause 300,000 civilian deaths?” tweeted Russian deputy ambassador to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy. “All this based on our intelligence sources that we won’t disclose. Would it feel right for Americans and Britts [sic]? It’s as wrong for Russians and Ukrainians.”
But the Kremlin’s credibility has been shredded by hundreds of commercial satellite photos and thousands of social media posts of assembling heavy armour, artillery and equipment.
No such evidence has been presented for Ukrainian, British or US forces mobilising.
US intelligence agency assessments report Russia will have enough forces in position for a successful invasion of Ukraine as early as next week.
Satellite and social media sources support this claim.
Moscow insists its forces moving into Belarus are there for a “scheduled” Union Resolve military exercise between February 12 and 20. But the deployment size is far beyond the scale of the announced war games. And many of these Russian units are taking up positions far from the designated training grounds.
Instead, they’re pitching tents within 50km of the border with Ukraine.
Military analysts have been tracking the movements of 83 Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) – self-supporting mobile combat units. Another 14 BTGs are believed to be in transit.
Not all are destined for Belarus or Russia’s border with Ukraine. Others are appearing in the annexed Ukrainian territory of Crimea.
Experts say the Russian force now tops 130,000 troops.
A single BTG contains about 10 tanks, 40 armoured vehicles and 36 squads of troops. These will spearhead any assault, backed up by separate artillery, electronic warfare and logistics units.
Satellite images are confirming social media videos showing Russian forces massing inside Belarus. Maxar says its images were taken on February 4. Capella Space says its photos were from a similar time frame.
Among the more notable arrivals are 15 Su-25 “Frogfoot” ground-attack aircraft appearing at the Luninets airfield. Alongside them are S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems and radars.
The Russian Ministry of Defence released a video of their arrival – purportedly for Union Resolve – at the weekend. However, commercial satellite images defined the full extent of the operation.
The attack jets were just a tiny part of Russia’s weekend movements.
Tents have sprung up among vehicle parks in the Obuz-Lesnovsky training area in Belarus. An Iskander ballistic missile battalion was spotted setting up camp at the Osipovichi training grounds.
But most activity appears to have taken place far from these facilities.
Satellite images reveal artillery, tanks and troops assembling at the Belarusian border city of Rechitsa. That’s 270km from the training grounds – and right on the junction of the Russian, Belarusan and Ukrainian borders.
Social media videos have confirmed their presence inside the city.
Closer to the Ukraine border is the town of Yelsk. Here another Iskander ballistic missile battery has been pictured among what appears to be three full Russian BTGs.
The troop movements have not been limited to Russia’s ally Belarus. The Crimean Peninsula region of Novoozernoye is now hosting several armoured infantry units, with more offloading from the rail yards in Yevpatoria.
A matter of time
Military analysts warn the optimal time for any Russian assault would be when the ground is fully frozen. Such a hard surface would be ideal for fast-moving heavy-tracked vehicles, such as tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
But, within a few short weeks, this ground is expected to thaw.
This will produce a muddy quagmire preventing movement on all but the best-maintained roads.
Essentially, any assault on Ukraine and its capital Kiev would need to occur before April.
US officials say another critical indicator of Moscow’s true intentions is the positioning of emergency blood supplies and other medical facilities among the military formations.
Moscow says it has no plans to invade Ukraine.
But it has expressed “fears” that Ukraine will attack it.
At the weekend, US intelligence agencies warned Russia was in the process of manufacturing fake videos of a “false flag” attack on its citizens. This, they said without substantiation, was intended to be an “excuse” for war.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last week called the Russian manoeuvres the most significant Russian deployment since the Cold War. He also highlighted concerns about the presence of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles.
In recent weeks the Kremlin has instructed NATO to reject Ukraine as a member and expel ex-Soviet countries that have joined since the mid-1990s. It also demands NATO withdraws its military forces in Eastern European nations, including Poland, stating this “expansion” poses a serious threat to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Washington of “ignoring” these demands and using Ukraine as a “lure” for war.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel