KYIV — Tanks and other menacing self-propelled artillery. A Russian Buk surface-to-air missile system like the one that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Thousands more troops.
Those are merely some of the Russian forces and matériel seen in videos posted to social media heading toward the Ukrainian border in the past week alone. Western and Ukrainian intelligence agencies estimate roughly 100,000 troops, along with fighter aircraft and ballistic missiles, are already in place. That number could increase to 175,000 soldiers, the agencies say.
These deployments, partnered with verbal threats and war games happening within striking distance of Ukraine, don’t bode well for peace in Eastern Europe. They are ominous signs that Russia may be preparing to launch another large-scale, multifront invasion to wrest back control of the former Soviet republic that has moved increasingly further from Moscow’s orbit — and toward the Western democratic world — since gaining independence 30 years ago.
An invasion, experts warn, could explode into the biggest and bloodiest war in Europe since World War II. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dangerous brinkmanship alone also threatens to drag the US and its allies in Western Europe, as well as NATO, deeper into the nearly eight-year-long war in Ukraine that has already killed more than 14,000 people. The Russian leader said he wants NATO to scratch its 2008 promise to Ukraine of future membership.
Recent satellite images provided to BuzzFeed News by Maxar Technologies and analyzed by military experts show what appear to be some of these new forces at strategic locations in Soloti, southwestern Russia, about 30 miles from the Ukrainian border, and in Opuk, southern Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow forcibly seized from Kyiv in 2014.
This weekend, Russia’s military held live-fire tank exercises with 1,500 soldiers in those areas and others nearby. The Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, intercepted a Ukrainian navy vessel in the Sea of Azov that it claimed was carrying out a “provocation.” And Putin, the Kremlin, and the country’s state-run media pumped out more bellicose rhetoric.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week that Putin hasn’t made a decision as to whether he will launch another large-scale invasion of Ukraine. But US intelligence and military analysts warn that he has plenty of Russian forces in place if he should decide to do so.
“There isn’t any indication that Russia is moving forces away from Ukraine, but there is evidence that Russia is continuing to send more ground forces near the border,” Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and PhD candidate at the King’s College London War Studies Department, told BuzzFeed News. “I would expect this means Russia will retain an enhanced military posture near Ukraine for the foreseeable future … even if they don’t escalate in Ukraine.”
Konrad Muzyka, a defense analyst focused on Russia and Belarus, analyzed the Maxar Technologies images for BuzzFeed News. He said that Russia had created a new regiment within its 3rd Motor Rifle Division and that group likely accounted for much of the increase of troops and equipment in Soloti seen in the satellite images between Sept. 7 and Dec. 5. That was two days before President Joe Biden’s call with Putin.
“The regiment is based on BMP-3Ms [Russian infantry fighting vehicles] that were withdrawn from the 22nd Central Reserve and Maintenance Tank Base in Buy in mid-November,” he said, referencing the city northwest of Moscow where they came from. “The same facility delivered BMP-3Ms to a new motor rifle regiment in Kaliningrad’s 18th Motor Rifle Division. Altogether, between mid-November and early December, some 200 new vehicles appeared in Soloti, although probably not all of them came from Buy.”
Maxar Senior Director Stephen Wood told BuzzFeed News that some of the recent increase in vehicles seen in the Dec. 5 image could represent military units that returned following their participation in the large ground-forces exercise Russia held in the fall.
In Opuk, Muzyka said, it’s harder to know what is indicated in the satellite images taken on Nov. 27. “The last couple of months, there has been a lot of movement into and out of Crimea. It is done possibly to obfuscate the scale of Russian forces there.”
Wood said this was “one of the areas where the Russian military had a large deployment of forces and equipment back in April.” Most of the equipment and troops had departed the training area by the early summer, according to Wood, but “this set of equipment seen on the Nov. 26 image represents new equipment to the area as of late November.”
Muzyka noticed one worrying element in those images: markers where several tents housing military equipment used to stand. Their being in place meant there was no need for them to be deployed beyond the base.
“To me, withdrawal of equipment from storage to create a new unit is an indicator that Russia is preparing for a conflict,” he said.
In a high-stakes diplomatic push to avert a fresh attack, Biden told Putin in a virtual summit Tuesday that he would face serious consequences should he further invade Ukraine.
“I made it absolutely clear to President Putin … that if he moves on Ukraine, the economic consequences for his economy are going to be devastating, devastating,” Biden said of their discussion Friday.
The Biden administration has said it’s considering several options to deter Russia’s aggressive behavior and potentially a new invasion of Ukraine. It has said it may send more military aid to Kyiv, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, and it has floated the idea of sending air-defense systems. And Biden himself has said he's prepared to impose tough new sanctions against Russia — although just how tough remains to be seen.
“What the president made very clear to President Putin, what I’ve made very clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov, my counterpart, is that we are looking at and we are prepared to take the kinds of steps we’ve refrained from taking in the past that would have massive consequences for Russia,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.
Speaking from a meeting with top diplomats from the Group of Seven nations, Blinken said his counterparts “are equally resolute in their determination to stand against Russian aggression, to ideally deter it, prevent it.”
Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday. The two talked about ways to try to break the diplomatic logjam with Russia when it comes to the stalemated peace deal known as the Minsk accords.
The Ukrainian leader also encouraged Biden to be proactive with sanctions and security aid, arguing that putting them in place and sending help now could stave off an attack, a Zelensky adviser with knowledge of the call told BuzzFeed News.
In a sign that the situation might get worse before it gets better, as Biden and Zelensky spoke, Putin told Russian media that the Ukrainian military’s actions in eastern Ukraine were “Russophobic” and “resemble genocide.” In a Sunday-evening interview program on Russian state television, Putin lamented the breakup of the USSR, according to Reuters, saying it led to the end of “historical Russia.”