KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian defense officials say recent troop and military hardware movements in western Russia are not yet cause for alarm.
“According to the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Defense Ministry of Ukraine, as of November 1, 2021, an additional transfer of Russian units, weapons and military equipment to the state border with Ukraine has not been recorded,” the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine announced in a release.
Several American news outlets have reported that US and European officials are on guard following the reported movement of Russian military forces in Ukraine’s periphery. Citing anonymous US and European officials, The Washington Post reported Saturday, Oct. 30, that a “renewed buildup of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border has raised concern among some officials in the United States and Europe.”
The Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine said in a Monday Facebook post that the recent Russian military movements cited in American news reports are “essentially planned measures in the framework of troop movements after training.”
Satellite image taken today by @Maxar reveals presence of a large ground forces deployment — incl. tanks, APCs, self-propelled artillery — to a training area north of Yelnya, Russia. pic.twitter.com/fitG2APRZc
— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) November 1, 2021
In October, Russia reportedly drew down units deployed at a base near Pogonovo, a training area used for Russia’s Zapad 2021 military exercises in September. Open-source satellite imagery purports to show a concurrent buildup of Russian military hardware at a training area near Yelnya, which is some 170 miles to the north of the Russia-Ukraine border and about 70 miles to the east of the Belarusian frontier.
Politico published commercial satellite photos in a Monday report showing new Russian military hardware in Yelnya. Those additional military forces reportedly include tanks, armored personnel carriers, and self-propelled artillery, according to Maxar Technologies, the commercial satellite imagery firm referenced in the Politico report.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described Monday’s Politico article regarding Russian military movements as “cheap fake news.”
“It is not even worth commenting on the quality of these reports and generally such news should be ignored,” Peskov said, according to the Russian news agency Tass. “The reports talk about the border with Ukraine, yet they show the border with Belarus.”
— Alex Kokcharov (@AlexKokcharov) October 30, 2021
Iskander missile systems have also been spotted on the move within Russia’s Bryansk oblast, a region that borders Ukraine. And BUK surface-to-air missiles have been observed moving within Russia’s Smolensk oblast, which borders Belarus.
Defense experts generally agree that the recent reshuffling of Russian forces is unusual but not yet indicative of imminent, escalated aggression against Ukraine. “The bottom line is that invasion of Ukraine is presently unlikely. I do not consider the current movement to be Ukraine-related,” wrote Konrad Muzyka, the president of Rochan Consulting, a Polish defense consultancy.
Without drawing conclusions, the US Department of Defense has acknowledged the ongoing Russian movements. “We are aware of public reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine but cannot speak to Russian intentions,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesperson, multiple agencies reported.
Additional vehicles / armour / equipment has arrived at the 144th MRD garrison,at Yelnya / Smolensk Oblast, since the 19th.
We are now looking at a substantial buildup of Russian Army units there.
SAR-imagery from this morning, optical from yesterday.
The big question: Why? pic.twitter.com/FXyjJVApsv
— The Lookout (@The_Lookout_N) October 25, 2021
Michael Kofman, director of CNA Corp.’s Russia Center and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, has also said that it’s too early to know Moscow’s true aim.
“People tend to have two settings, either nothing happening, or invasion tomorrow. At the moment it is a developing situation. It’s not ‘nothing happening’ and it doesn’t mean that there will be an offensive operation tomorrow,” Kofman tweeted Sunday.
Kofman added, “Russian force movements offer cause for concern [and] the situation merits watching in the coming weeks/months.”
In 2014, Moscow seized Crimea and launched an unconventional military offensive into Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Moscow’s military campaign in the Donbas has since devolved into a stalemated, static war along a roughly 160-mile-long front line. Despite a February 2015 cease-fire, combat is ongoing. One Ukrainian soldier died in combat Tuesday, Ukraine’s defense ministry announced.
In April, Russia massed tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine, sparking fears of a wider war and prompting US forces in Europe to go on heightened alert. While that crisis has passed, tensions remain high.
Russia withdrew its diplomatic mission to NATO on Oct. 18 after the Western alliance expelled eight Russian mission members for espionage. Meanwhile, the ongoing war in the Donbas has also grown more tense in recent weeks. In defense against shelling from Russian forces on Oct. 26, Ukraine conducted an airstrike with one of its Bayraktar TB2 drones, marking Kyiv’s first combat use of the Turkish-made drone.
“The military intelligence of Ukraine constantly monitors the actions of the troops of the aggressor state and changes in their numbers near the state border of Ukraine,” Ukraine’s defense ministry said.