Satellite images show the buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine that have the US and NATO worried about an invasion

·4 min read
Overview of ground forces and equipment in Yelnya, Russia
Overview of ground forces and equipment in Yelnya, RussiaSatellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies
  • New satellite images of the buildup of Russian forces near Ukraine's borders have come out.

  • The troop buildup has raised concerns that Russia may invade its neighbor as soon as early next year.

  • The Biden administration has warned of "severe consequences" if Russia takes military action.

New satellite photos show the buildup of Russian armed forces at strategic locations in western Russia near the Ukrainian border and at one spot in Crimea amid concerns that Russia will invade its neighbor in the near future.

The images, which Insider obtained from Maxar Technologies, show a number of Russian tactical battle groups, including both personnel and equipment, such as tanks, artillery, and armored troop carriers, deployed to the Pogonovo training area and Yelnya in Russia and Novoozernoye in Crimea in November.

Overview of ground forces and equipment in Yelnya, Russia
Overview of ground forces and equipment in Yelnya, RussiaSatellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

After snap drills in the spring near Ukraine triggered a few alarms, tensions de-escalated for a time. But alarm bells began ringing again when a significant number of Russian troops were observed gathering a couple hundred miles from Ukraine's border early last month.

Amid a flurry of reports on the Russian troop buildup, State Department and Pentagon officials publicly characterized Russian activity as "unusual" and expressed some concern over Russia's lack of transparency about the reasons for the troop increase.

Troop tents in Yelnya, Russia
Troop tents in Yelnya, RussiaSatellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Toward the end of November, Bloomberg reported that the US had shared concerns about the possibility of an invasion, as well as intelligence indicating that Russia is positioning forces for a possible multi-directional push into Ukraine, with allies and partners in Europe.

"I would not downplay this," Jeffrey Edmonds, a former CIA military analyst and Russia expert at CNA, told Insider at the time. "The troop buildup is pretty significant."

"I think you always have to assume it's a real possibility," Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon and NATO official and security expert at the Center for New American Security, said.

And in a podcast discussion last month, Michael Kofman, the Research Program Director for the Russia Studies Program at CNA, said he doesn't "think there is going to be a Russian military operation in the coming days and weeks," but added that he is "very worried looking into the coming months and toward this winter."

View of Russian forces deployed to Novoozernoye
View of Russian forces deployed to NovoozernoyeSatellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Biden administration officials revealed late last week that US intelligence indicates Russia could invade early next year with a force as large as 175,000 troops, according to multiple reports.

A Russian battle group is visible in the Pogonovo training area
A Russian battle group is visible in the Pogonovo training areaSatellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

One official said that "the Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 with a scale of forces twice what we saw this past spring during Russia's rapid military buildup near Ukraine's borders."

"The plans involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armor, artillery, and equipment," the administration official said, further explaining that the US estimates "half of these units are already near Ukraine's border."

A second Russian battle group can be seen in the Pogonovo training area.
A second Russian battle group can be seen in the Pogonovo training areaSatellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Though Russia has denied having plans to invade, the buildup comes as Russia has expressed frustration with what he considers to be a lack of respect for Russia's "red lines," NATO activity, Ukraine's pro-Western leanings, and political obstacles in Ukraine running contrary to Russian interests.

"I don't accept anybody's red lines," President Joe Biden told reporters Friday, adding that the US would probably need to have a lengthy discussion with Putin about Russian activities. The White House announced over the weekend the two leaders will talk Tuesday.

As for whether or not Russia will actually move to invade its neighbor, "we don't know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade," Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said last week. But, the secretary added, "we do know that he is putting in place the capacity to do so in short order should he so decide."

"So despite uncertainty about intention, and timing, we must prepare for all contingencies while working to see to it that Russia reverses course," he said, warning in remarks at a NATO event of "severe consequences" should Russia invade.

Last Friday, Biden said that he was putting together what he believes to be "the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do."

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