This weekend, Russia’s military held live-fire tank exercises with 1,500 soldiers in those areas and others nearby. The Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, intercepted a Ukrainian navy vessel in the Sea of Azov that it claimed was carrying out a “provocation.” And Putin, the Kremlin, and the country’s state-run media pumped out more bellicose rhetoric.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week that Putin hasn’t made a decision as to whether he will launch another large-scale invasion of Ukraine. But US intelligence and military analysts warn that he has plenty of Russian forces in place if he should decide to do so.
“There isn’t any indication that Russia is moving forces away from Ukraine, but there is evidence that Russia is continuing to send more ground forces near the border,” Rob Lee, a Russian military expert and PhD candidate at the King’s College London War Studies Department, told BuzzFeed News. “I would expect this means Russia will retain an enhanced military posture near Ukraine for the foreseeable future … even if they don’t escalate in Ukraine.”
Konrad Muzyka, a defense analyst focused on Russia and Belarus, analyzed the Maxar Technologies images for BuzzFeed News. He said that Russia had created a new regiment within its 3rd Motor Rifle Division and that group likely accounted for much of the increase of troops and equipment in Soloti seen in the satellite images between Sept. 7 and Dec. 5. That was two days before President Joe Biden’s call with Putin.
“The regiment is based on BMP-3Ms [Russian infantry fighting vehicles] that were withdrawn from the 22nd Central Reserve and Maintenance Tank Base in Buy in mid-November,” he said, referencing the city northwest of Moscow where they came from. “The same facility delivered BMP-3Ms to a new motor rifle regiment in Kaliningrad’s 18th Motor Rifle Division. Altogether, between mid-November and early December, some 200 new vehicles appeared in Soloti, although probably not all of them came from Buy.”
Maxar Senior Director Stephen Wood told BuzzFeed News that some of the recent increase in vehicles seen in the Dec. 5 image could represent military units that returned following their participation in the large ground-forces exercise Russia held in the fall.
In Opuk, Muzyka said, it’s harder to know what is indicated in the satellite images taken on Nov. 27. “The last couple of months, there has been a lot of movement into and out of Crimea. It is done possibly to obfuscate the scale of Russian forces there.”