NATO has now released a series of images along the Russian border with Ukraine which tell a potentially troubling story. The images show a very apparent and obvious buildup of Russian military all along Ukraine’s eastern border, which includes a significant concentration of fighter planes, helicopters, artillery, infantry, and special forces. Experts say that the massive force could be ready to move with only 12 hours of notice. The satellite photos seem to be at odds with the statements from Russian officials that there is nothing at all out of the ordinary about their troop movements and no cause for anyone, including Ukraine, to be concerned. The suggestions do not hold as much power when juxtaposed with the satellite images from NATO.
The images depict rows and rows of tanks, numbering in the hundreds, as well as armoured vehicles that are parked in clearly temporary locations like fields and appear to be poised, waiting for orders. The tanks and armoured vehicles are approximately 30 miles from the Ukrainian border. The images were taken in the past several weeks, and they show a piece of what Nato describes as possibly 100 staging areas. These areas were practically deserted in February. While it could be that Russia is doing their best to prepare for the worst in terms of Ukrainian or Western retaliation against his annexation of Crimea, that would also be at odds with the supreme confidence and, at times, arrogance that Russian officials have displayed in regards to the Crimean crisis.
A perfect example of a once deserted area now full of military might is an airbase at Buturlinovka, which is 90 miles from the Ukrainian border. Buturlinovka was previously completely deserted, and now there appears to be dozens of fast fighter jets stationed at the base. Typically, at airbases hosting fighter jets, there are hangars and other infrastructure designed to provide shelter for the jets during repairs and maintenance, and for many other reasons. There are no such hangars or infrastructure at Buturlinovka, a very strong implication that the stationing of dozens of jets there is both temporary and purposeful. Belgorod provides another very similar example. Belgorod is only 25 miles from the border with Ukraine, and is now home to what appeared to be 21 helicopters, also without the usual hangars and infrastructure to support their presence. According to experts, the Belgorod station has all the appearances of a forward operating base.
Brigadier Gary Deakin is in charge of NATO’s crisis operations and management centre at the alliance’s military headquarters. According to Brigadier Deakin, “This is a capable force, ready to go…It has the resources to move quickly into Ukraine if it was ordered to do so. It is poised at the moment, and it could move very fast.” Deakin estimates that there are between 35,000 and 40,000 Russian troops that were poised “at a state of advanced readiness,” and could be deployed in Ukraine “within 12 hours from a decision taken at the highest level.” For the tanks and soldiers stationed 30 miles from the Ukrainian border, that could mean entering Ukraine within an hour of deployment. For the jets 90 miles away, it could be even faster.
The images show that the explanation of Russian officials that the troops are simply on “exercise” does not hold much water. The way the troops are stationed along the border shows all of the telltale signs that it is a force intended for invasion. Where the troops are, there are no barracks or any significant buildings, not even parking. “We just don’t see much infrastructure. There is more here than it was built for,” said Deakin. With the likely possibility of the Russian forces near the border moving into the eastern regions of Ukraine where there are already pro-Russian rebels pushing for secession, and the very strong capability of Russia to overwhelm the entire country of Ukraine, the implications of Russia’s military buildup along the border are disturbing indeed.
Name-calling and finger-pointing between Russia and the US and EU continues, with each blaming the other for destabilizing Ukraine and stoking the flame of rebellion inside the country. NATO is responding by bolstering its forces in central and Eastern Europe, and rallying support from all of the NATO members. The UK, France, and Denmark have already pledged support.