Russia’s military is again on the move, adding pressure on Ukraine as invasion fears grow

MOSCOW — Days before U.S. and Russian negotiators met in Geneva this month for high-stakes diplomatic talks amid Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine, videos of Russian trains transporting tanks and other materiel began to pop up again on social media.

Months earlier similar social media clips, backed by satellite imagery, helped analysts track and geolocate movement by Russian forces as they redeployed near the Ukraine border. The new videos and photos were taken by ordinary citizens, and shared via TikTok. They captured the movement of new hardware westward from Russia’s Eastern Military District. This area includes Eastern Siberia as well as Russia’s Far East.

Analysts said this is the first time those units have been dispatched to the opposite side of the country. Short-range ballistic missile systems, air-defense and multiple-launch rocket systems were all purportedly captured on the move.

As U.S. officials in those Geneva talks urged their Russian counterparts to pull back their forces in an effort to de-escalate tensions, Moscow continued deploying even more hardware toward Ukraine. The new force appeared to be headed for Belarus in the context of joint training exercises. However, this means that Russian equipment and troops are now located near Kyiv’s capital to further ring the country.

Already, the Russian military has built up personnel and equipment along Russia’s border with eastern Ukraine, raising worries in the West of an imminent invasion. Russia says it does not intend to invade Ukraine, but the West has resisted a series of security demands that includes a promise to never allow Ukraine to become a NATO member.

In addition to the upcoming military exercises in Belarus, Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Thursday that its navy will “conduct a series of exercises in all areas of responsibility of the fleets” involving more than 140 warships and support vessels, more than 60 aircraft, 1,000 units of military equipment and about 10,000 military personnel — an act that will probably stoke more fear in the West.

In a separate move, Russian naval forces are joining Iranian and Chinese warships in maneuvers in the Gulf of Oman this week, the Defense Ministry said.

Speaking in Moscow on Wednesday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said “there is no risk of a large-scale war that could break out in Europe or somewhere else.”

“We do not intend to take any aggressive steps,” he added. “We have no intention of attacking, staging an offensive on or invading Ukraine.”

But Russian officials have also warned of “countermeasures” if the United States and its NATO allies do not provide a legally binding written guarantee that the bloc will never admit Ukraine or Georgia as members. Russia regards the cooperation of NATO members with ex-Soviet countries as a threat to Russia’s security and an intrusion on Russia’s historic spheres of influence. NATO member states maintain that NATO has an open door policy. If they comply with entry requirements, NATO would accept Georgia and Ukraine.

“As it concerns the American demands that we immediately pull our troops away from Ukraine’s border, we’ll keep patiently explaining to our counterparts that said forces and resources are deployed in our own territory, and we aren’t going to make any adjustments to their movement under pressure from the outside,” Ryabkov said.

U.S. officials have said there is an estimated 100,000 Russian troops massed near Ukraine. Analysts from the Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent Russian open-source investigative outfit that monitors Russia’s military, estimated that there are now anywhere from 110,000 to 140,000 troops in the area. In December, an unclassified U.S. intelligence document found the Kremlin could be planning a multi-front offensive involving up to 175,000 troops.

Konrad Muzyka, head of the Poland-based Rochan Consulting defense research group, said Russia’s regular military strength near Ukraine comprised 24 battalion tactical groups. Including the new units on the way from the Eastern Military District, Russia will now have some 64 of those groups near Ukraine.

But Muzyka described the current battalion tactical groups as “skeleton crews” with engineering and logistics personnel to maintain the materiel in the field. Russia would also need to mobilize some additional 50,000 combat troops, Muzyka calculated, if it were to launch an invasion. Muzyka stated that this could be done quickly and forces arriving by train might not be as noticeable as if they arrived on military planes.

Muzyka and Conflict Intelligence Team analysts said the equipment and forces now on the move from the Eastern Military District — 10 to 15 Russian battalion tactical groups, they estimated — are headed to Belarus ahead of joint military exercises. Those drills, planned for Feb. 10-20, have raised alarm among U.S. officials and experts.

Belarusian officials said the training will include the deployment of a Russian Su-35S fighter squadron, two S-400 air defense battalions, and a Pantsir-S air defense battalion to Belarus, as well as ground equipment.

Muzyka described the scale of Russian troops moving into Belarus as “massive” and “unprecedented.”

“This has never happened,” he said.

A senior State Department official, who spoke to reporters in a phone briefing on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the department, said that “these numbers are beyond, of course, what we would expect with regard to a normal exercise.”

Ryabkov, the Russian diplomat, said Wednesday that “there is no reason to worry about anything in connection with this exercise.”

But the buildup in Belarus means Ukraine has to split its forces to prepare for a possible attack from the north as well as from the east, where it has been embroiled in an eight-year conflict with Moscow-backed separatists. Russia also has units stationed in Crimea — which was forcibly annexed from Ukraine in 2014 — and also on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Kyiv is significantly closer to the border with Belarus in its northern part.

Satellite imagery has also showed Russian battalion tactical groups positioned near where the Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian borders meet, such as in Klintsy, which is just 45 miles from Ukraine.

Kirill Mikhailov, an analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team, said that Russia’s Uragan multiple-launch rocket systems were spotted in the Belarusian city of Gomel, which is not part of the upcoming drills and is just 160 miles from Kyiv. It is possible the hardware had just been unloaded at Gomel, and that it will be later moved to training grounds.

In a phone interview, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foothold in Belarus puts Russian forces in closer striking distance to Kyiv but that launching a military attack from there would be a costly endeavor.

“The question is whether Putin wants to contest Kyiv right off the bat,” said Murphy, who just returned to Washington from Kyiv, where he held meetings with top Ukrainian officials.

“Coming from Belarus gets you to Kyiv quicker, but Kyiv is where the bloodiest of the fighting will likely be,” he added. There will be many Ukrainians shooting from the rooftops at Russian troops. So, yes the troops in Belarus gets you closer to Kyiv, but I’m not sure that that’s where Putin wants to go right off the bat.”

Murphy, who met virtually with President Biden on Wednesday to discuss his trip, said Putin has backed himself into a very costly corner.

“I wish there were signs that this crisis was moving in reverse, but every single day it seems as Russia digs in more deeply,” Murphy said. “This is a very expensive bluff, if it’s a bluff.”

Hudson reported from Washington.

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