Satellite images reveal Putin has moved HUNDREDS more tanks and armoured vehicles onto Ukraine’s border in recent weeks while blasting ‘expansionist’ NATO amid fears he is poised to invade East of nation
- Satellite images dated December 13 show a brigade-level unit with several hundred vehicles at Crimean base
- But October 7 picture of the same garrison, 110 miles from Ukraine’s border, showed the base was half empty
- Russian troops engaged in frenzy of ‘exercises’ including precision shooting at the Ukrainian border yesterday
- Comes amid reports ‘mass graves’, each capable of holding 100 bodies, are being prepared along the border
- Russia has been massing thousands of troops at Ukraine’s border since October after a small buildup in April
Satellite images have revealed Vladimir Putin has moved hundreds more tanks and armoured vehicles onto Ukraine’s border in recent weeks while blasting ‘expansionist’ NATO amid fears he is poised to invade the country.
Newly-published pictures dated December 13 show a new brigade-level unit comprised of several hundred armoured vehicles massed at a Russian base in Bakhchysarai, Crimea, around 110 miles from the Ukrainian border.
An October 7 satellite image of the same garrison showed the base was half empty, showing that the Kremlin has continued to build up its forces near Ukraine in recent weeks while pressing the United States for talks over security guarantees.
More Maxar Technologies images taken yesterday from the Crimea show an entire Russian battle group taking part in military exercises at the Opuk training area, between 150 and 160 miles from the border.
Tensions along Europe’s eastern border have been simmering since Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea back in 2014, and have been threatening to boil over ever since Moscow began massing forces in the region starting in October after an earlier brief buildup in April this year.
President Vladimir Putin, speaking at his annual end-of-year conference on Thursday, said that Russia wanted to avoid conflict, but needed an ‘immediate’ response from the United States and its allies to its demands for security guarantees.
The Kremlin reiterated on Friday that it reserves the right to move its own forces on Russian territory as it sees fit and that Western countries were carrying out provocative military manoeuvres near its borders.
It comes after more than 1,000 Russian troops held a frenzy of military exercises including precision firing tests, mobile defence drills and practice flights along the Ukrainian border on Thursday.
And in another twist the drills come amid claims ‘mass grave’ sites, each capable of accommodating 100 bodies, are being prepared along the Ukrainian border ahead of a possible invasion by Russian forces.
AFTER: Newly-published pictures dated December 13 show a new brigade-level unit comprised of several hundred armoured vehicles massed at a Russian base in Bakhchysarai, Crimea, around 110 miles from the Ukrainian border
BEFORE: A satellite image of the same garrison in Bakhchysarai, Crimea, taken on October 7 showed the base was half empty
Moscow has for weeks been massing tens of thousands of troops, tanks and artillery pieces along its eastern flank, sparking fears of an invasion, though the Kremlin has insisted it is merely a defence force (pictured, Russian forces currently massed in border regions)
Maxar said the new unit at the Bakhchysarai garrison includes BMP-series infantry fighting vehicles, tanks, self-propelled artillery and air defence equipment.
‘Over the past month, our high-resolution satellite imagery has observed a number of new Russian deployments in Crimea as well as in several training areas in western Russia along the periphery of the Ukraine border,’ Maxar said in a statement.
It cited increased activity at three sites in Crimea and at five sites in western Russia.
When asked on Friday about the build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Moscow was acting to defend its own security.
‘Russia is moving its own troops around on its own territory against the backdrop of highly unfriendly actions by our opponents in NATO, the United States and various European countries who are carrying out highly unambiguous manoeuvres near our borders,’ said Peskov.
‘This forces us to take certain measures to guarantee our own security.’
Older Maxar images showed a build-up at the Soloti staging ground in Russia close to the Ukrainian border, with photos shot at the start of December showing a larger concentration of military hardware than in September.
Other pictures showed continuing build-ups at Yelnya, a Russian town around 160 miles (260 km) north of the Ukrainian border, and at the Pogonovo training ground near the southern Russian city of Voronezh.
More Maxar Technologies images taken yesterday from the Crimea show an entire Russian battle group at the Opuk training area, between 150 and 160 miles from the border, on Wednesday
A satellite image take on December 22 shows a Russian battle group deployed at Opuk training area in the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014
A satellite image take on December 22 shows a Russian battle group taking part in a manoeuvre amid a frenzy of military exercises the same day as President Putin held his annual end-of-year press conference in Moscow
In a word: Power. Ukraine contains one of Russia’s most-important naval bases and the headquarters for its Black Sea fleet – at Sevastopol in Crimea – and acts as an important buffer zone between Moscow and rival western European powers.
With control of Crimea and the port at Sevastopol, Putin can project power across the Black Sea towards Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, whilst also exerting further control over nations it shares land borders with – Ukraine and Georgia.
Having a large Russian military presence in Crimea also gives Putin a toe-hold on the edge of the Mediterranean and, via his airbases, allows him to menace much of mainland Europe – giving Russia a sway over the continent’s politics.
That is why, following the Ukrainian revolution in 2014 which saw close ally Viktor Yanukovych deposed in favour of a government seeking closer ties with the West, Putin marched troops into Crimea and annexed it.
He subsequently declared the peninsula – which at the 2001 census was 60 per cent ethnic Russia – as part of Russian territory, pointing to the results of a referendum which gave backing to Moscow’s rule.
Since then, he has built a land bridge between mainland Russia and Crimea across the Kerch strait which allows him to move troops and tanks there with relative ease.
Crimea is now thought to play host to up to 10,000 Russian troops along with tanks, artillery pieces, planes, and helicopters – as well as the Black Sea fleet.
Ukraine also acts as an important buffer zone between Russia and western European powers, making it harder for them to threaten Moscow, Russian military bases at Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar, and nuclear weapons sites at Saratov and Bryansk.
That is why, also since 2014, Russia has been waging a proxy-war on Ukraine’s government in the Donbas region which sits just on the other side of its border with Ukraine.
Putin has been providing arms, funding and reinforcements to separatist fighters in these regions, which are majority-Ukrainian but have sizable Russian minorities.
Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions which collectively make up the Donbas, are 38 per cent and 39 per ethnically Russian – again according to the 2001 census – and many regions closest to the border speak predominantly Russia.
Ukraine’s current government, keen to break with hundreds of years of Russian rule – first as part of the Empire and then under the Soviets – is eager to join western alliances such as the EU and NATO as a safeguard to democratic and free-market reforms that have taken place since the fall of the Soviet Union.
But Putin, unwilling to allow NATO to simply march to his doorstep by welcoming Ukraine into the alliance, has been seeking guarantees that Kiev will never be allowed to join.
The Kremlin has also denounced NATO naval drills which have been taking place in the Black Sea, near Crimea, as provocative and asked the US and its allies to stand down.
It came a day after Putin on Thursday accused NATO and the US of planning to deploy hypersonic missiles – which have not yet been successfully developed – to Ukraine.
The Russian strongman blamed NATO’s militarisation of former Soviet states, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, since the end of the Cold War for the current crisis and threatened that Russia ‘can do anything at any cost’ to protect itself.
In the Black Sea Sukhoi Su-27SM3 fighter jets stationed in Krasnodar drilled on challenging Western or Ukrainian warships seen as threatening the Russian border, defence sources said.
‘In the course of training flights, Su-27SM3 duos escorted Sukhoi Su-34 fighter bombers and practised airborne duty, detection and following of mock transgressor ships demonstrating an intention to illegal cross the Russian sea border,’ said a fleet statement.
Separately, the sprawling central military district announced a 50 per cent increase in drills for 2022, amounting to almost one every day.
Video shows a batch of five ultra modern MiG-31BM interceptor fighters which were deployed in the district. And in Kemerovo, tanks conducted mobile defence drills involving 500 troops.
A report on the exercises stated: ‘The simulated enemy made an attempt to break through the defences with the help of heavy armoured vehicles.
‘The crews of tank units destroyed the enemy using mobile defence tactics, a feature of which is the preparation of several positions at different lines for each combat vehicle.
‘At the same time, after each shot, the tank changes its position.
‘The crews of the combat vehicle, by changing the firing positions, imitate the fire of more equipment and force the enemy to respond, thereby revealing themselves for the vehicles in ambush, which open fire in a volley at the detected targets.’
In Volgograd more than 1,000 infantry troops trained in missile and artillery fire with 152mm Msta-S self-propelled howitzers, Tornado-G rocket launchers, and T-90A tanks.
In Buryatia, motorised riflemen on infantry fighting vehicles thwarted the offensive of an ‘enemy’ in temperatures as low as minus 40C. In Ulyanovsk, Russian airborne troops were drilling in a ‘high-precision shooting championship’.
On Ukraine’s western border in the Moldovan separatist region of Transnistria, Russian forces stationed in the territory drilled in ‘radiation, chemical and biological protection’, it was reported.
In the Arctic, Russian forces were deployed setting up a communications system in harsh deep winter conditions at a firing range in Murmansk region.
‘The drills have been arranged and are taking place with the participation of troops and military hardware to upgrade firing and driving skills and to continue tactical and special training,’ said Russian military news agency Interfax-AVN today.
Mass burial sites were being dug along the Ukraine border as a ‘priority’, Russian outlet MK reported, citing leaked legal documents.
The graves are being constructed near to crematoriums, according to the documents, which come into force on February 1.
Russian troops engaged in a frenzy of ‘exercises’ on the Ukrainian border yesterday hours after Vladimir Putin told US and NATO to ‘go to hell’, stoking fears of an invasion
Five ultra modern MiG-31BM interceptor fighter jets (pictured) practiced yesterday amid claims ‘mass grave’ sties, each capable of accommodating 100 bodies, are being prepared along the Ukrainian border
More than 1,000 troops were involved in firing exercises in five regions yesterday while tanks conducted mobile defence drills involving 500 soldiers
In the Arctic, Russian forces were deployed setting up a communications system in harsh deep winter conditions at a firing range in Murmansk region
What did Vladimir Putin say on each topic at his end-of-year press conference?
On possible conflict with Ukraine:
‘This is not our choice, we do not want this.’
‘We have to think about ensuring our security prospects not just for today and next week but for the near future.’
‘We just directly posed the question that there should be no further NATO movement to the east, the ball is in their court, they should answer us with something. In this regard, I would like to stress that on the whole we have seen a positive reaction so far, our American partners tell us that they are ready to start this discussion.’
On NATO expansion:
‘What is unclear here? Are we putting missiles next to the United States’ borders? No, it is the United States that has come to us with their missiles, they are already on our doorstep.’
‘The course of negotiations is not important to us, the result is important… ‘Not one inch to the East,’ they told us in the 90s. So what? They cheated, just brazenly tricked us! Five waves of NATO expansion and now already, please, the systems are appearing in Romania and Poland.’
‘The future of Donbass should be determined by the people who live in Donbass… It cannot be any other way. We see our role as mediators in creating the best conditions for determining the future of the people who live in this territory.’
On Russia labelling some media as foreign agents:
‘We do not forbid the work of these organisations. We want organisations engaging in Russia’s domestic political activity to clearly and concisely declare the sources of foreign funding for their work.’
Last week, Moscow submitted draft security documents demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet countries and roll back the alliance’s military deployments in Central and Eastern Europe.
A key principle of the NATO alliance is that membership is open to any qualifying country.
The US and its allies have said they will not give Russia the kind of guarantee on Ukraine that Putin wants but American officials are conferring with European allies in advance of the Geneva talks.
Putin said Thursday that Washington has been willing to discuss the proposals and talks could happen at the start of next year in Geneva.
A senior US official said Washington was ready for talks ‘as soon as early January’.
Putin said: ‘There must not be any eastward NATO expansion… The ball is in their court. They need to provide us with some answer,’ he added: ‘Overall we see a positive reaction.’
‘US partners told us that they are ready to begin this discussion, these talks, at the very start of next year in Geneva,’ Putin said, adding that representatives from both sides have been appointed.
The growing tensions peaked this week when Putin vowed that Russia would take ‘appropriate retaliatory’ military steps in response to what he called the West’s ‘aggressive stance’.
Mr Putin likened the build-up of Nato forces in countries which once belonged to the Soviet Union to Russia establishing a military presence in Canada and Mexico.
He said: ‘Is it us who are putting missiles near the US borders? No, it’s the US who came to our home with their missiles.
‘Is it some excessive demand not to place any offensive systems near our home?
‘We have clearly and precisely let them know that any further Nato expansion eastward is unacceptable. And it is you [the West] who must give us guarantees and give them immediately, and not have idle talk about it for decades.’
Mr Putin claims that at the end of the Cold War Nato assured Russia it would respect its territorial heritage and made promises not to expand the alliance into central and eastern Europe.
But many eastern European nations feared they would be absorbed back into a greater Russia or become its client states again, losing new-found freedoms.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined Nato in 1999, followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
In subsequent years, Albania, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia also joined, bringing Nato’s membership to 30 nations.
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