New commercial satellite photos taken on Monday confirm recent reports that Russia is once again massing troops and military equipment on the border with Ukraine after a major buildup this spring.
The new images taken by Maxar Technologies and shared with POLITICO show a buildup of armored units, tanks and self-propelled artillery along with ground troops massing near the Russian town of Yelnya close to the border of Belarus. The units, which began moving in late September from other areas of Russia where they are normally based, include the elite 1st Guards Tank Army.
Meanwhile, a new analysis by Jane’s on Monday reveals that equipment from Russia’s 4th Tank Division has been moved to areas around Bryansk and Kursk close to Ukraine's northern border. The units are equipped with T-80U main battle tanks and self-propelled artillery.
Elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army have also been spotted in the area. The army “has been designed to conduct operations at every level of combat from counterinsurgency to mechanized warfare,” Jane's analysis reported. “It is usually the first to receive the latest equipment and is also seen as the primary formation for the testing of new equipment and tactics.”
The deployment “marks a clear deviation from the 1st Guards Tank Army’s standard training pattern,” which normally takes place around Moscow, Jane’s said.
Tensions have been increasing between Moscow and the West over the past several months, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has bristled at fresh talk of Ukraine and Georgia possibly joining NATO, and as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited both countries in October.
While in Kyiv, Austin was asked about Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. He stopped short of an endorsement, but said Ukraine “has a right to decide its own future foreign policy,” and the U.S. will “continue to do everything we can to support Ukraine's efforts to develop the capability to defend itself,” he added.
Days later, Putin issued his reply during a speech in Sochi, warning that “formal NATO membership may never happen,” for Ukraine, “but military expansion on the territory is already underway, and this really poses a threat to the Russian Federation, we are aware of this.”
The Washington Post first reported on the troop buildup on Saturday. That story referred to satellite photos but did not publish them. Reuters later quoted Ukraine's defense ministry denying the Post report, saying that as of Monday, transfer of more Russian soldiers, weapons and equipment to Ukraine’s border “was not recorded.”
The pictures come as tensions continue to percolate between Kyiv and the Kremlin. This spring, a buildup of Russian troops at Ukraine’s border caused concern in Ukraine’s capital and in Washington. The administration put together a package of lethal aid for the country but then, as a meeting between President Joe Biden and Putin neared, chose not to send it.
Some of those Russian forces would later return to their bases, but left much of their equipment behind in staging areas, another in a long history of surges and retreats along the Ukrainian border.
“We are aware of public reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine but cannot speak to Russian intentions,” said Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth. “We continue to support de-escalation in the region and a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. As we’ve said, our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering.”
In a show of support, Biden met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky late this summer — a meeting that Ukrainians had long sought.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that the Biden administration will “continue to monitor the situation closely.”
Russia has also been locked in a diplomatic confrontation with NATO. In the weeks before the annual NATO defense ministers’ conference last month, the alliance expelled eight Russian diplomats it labeled as spies. Moscow responded by shutting down its entire NATO mission.
“There are different ways with which Russia is interfering with our neighbors, and indeed we are extremely concerned,” Nathalie Loiseau, European Union parliamentarian and head of the security and defense subcommittee, said Monday during her visit to Washington. “You will always have Europeans seeing the Russian threat as a very immediate threat for our continent.”
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