New satellite images released by a US-based technology company appear to show that Russia’s military has advanced deployments at several locations in Belarus, a move likely to concern Ukraine and NATO amid fears that the Kremlin is planning an incursion into Ukrainian territory.
The deployments are likely linked to joint exercises between Russian and Belarus forces that are due to begin on Thursday. However, other photographs show camps being established close to the border with Ukraine, hundreds of miles from where the exercises are taking place.
Russia has repeatedly denied it is planning to attack Ukraine, despite Moscow’s massive troop buildup in the region. The Kremlin is believed to have assembled 70% of the military personnel and weapons on Ukraine’s borders that Russia would need for a full-scale invasion, according to two US officials familiar with Washington’s latest intelligence estimates. However, it is unclear how long it would take Russian forces to ramp up further, or if they would need full capabilities in order to invade.
The images from Maxar – taken Saturday – are consistent with recently posted social media videos showing Russian forces moving through Belarus and creating field camps within 20 miles of the Ukrainian border.
Some of the imagery shows Belarus’ Luninets airfield, where Russian fighter jets have deployed ahead of the exercises, dubbed Union Resolve 2022. Photographs show Russian S-400 air defense systems and Su-25 attack aircraft at the airfield. The Russian Defense Ministry released video on Saturday of the arrival of the planes at Luninets.
One of the S-400 battalions has traveled from Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, a journey of more than 5,600 miles (9,000 kilometers), according to Zvezda, a Russian Ministry of Defense publication.
Other photographs from Maxar show Russian forces establishing themselves at some distance from where the exercises are planned – including at Rechitsa, a Belarusian city about 170 miles (270 kilometers) east of Luninets close to where the borders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine meet.
The force gathered there includes tanks, howitzers and infantry fighting vehicles.
The images show that for the first time several tent encampments have been created at Rechitsa. That development and recent footage from the area suggest a growing Russian presence there. Videos posted to social media show Russian troops entertaining local people in Rechitsa, with music and demonstrations at an event called Two Nations, One History, One People.
Several other images from Maxar show a growing Russian presence southwest of Rechitsa, and within 15 miles (25 kilometers) of the Ukrainian border, in rural areas close to the town of Yelsk.
Maxar assesses the deployment near Yelsk to include short-range Iskander ballistic missiles, which have a range of about 250 miles (400 kilometers.)
Analysts at IHS/Janes, a military intelligence firm, believe there are elements of at least three Russian Battalion Tactical Group at Yelsk.
The massive troop buildup has caused alarm among US and European leaders. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that Moscow’s deployment into Belarus is the biggest since the Cold War.
One European diplomat called the massing of forces a “big, big worry,” noting this would be the missing piece that Moscow would need to launch a quick attack on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, which is less than two hours from the border of Belarus.
Based on publicly available weather calculations, the optimal time for a Russian invasion would be while there is a hard ground freeze, so heavy equipment can readily move. US officials have said Putin would understand he needs to move by the end of March.
The White House, however, has stopped saying a potential Russian invasion is “imminent” due to concerns that the term suggests President Vladimir Putin has already made a decision to invade Ukraine.
“We still don’t know that he’s made a decision,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
Ukraine presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak said Sunday there was no evidence Russia will take “critical steps for a full-scale invasion” of the country, but added that Kyiv and its partners are preparing for any possible scenarios.
“The situation is completely under control. One way or another, we are not reducing the activity of diplomatic work to ensure a sustainable and full-fledged de-escalation,” Podoliak told state media.
He noted that the “threatening concentration” of Russian troops at Ukraine’s borders remains, but stressed that it has been “going on for several years.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr, Jennifer Hansler and Joshua Berlinger contributed to this report