Russia says its units are returning home from exercises near Ukraine. Evidence suggests otherwise

In several of these videos, units from the Southern and Western Military Districts are said to be returning to base from Crimea after completing their exercises there. Traffic heading east across the bridge over the Kerch Strait included tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and tank trucks, which supported the units.

“Troops of the Southern Military District, who have completed their tasks within the framework of planned tactical exercises at combined arms firing ranges on the Crimean Peninsula, have begun to return to their permanent deployment points,” the ministry said on Tuesday. .

But two of the departing units, according to the Russian newspaper Izvestia, were elements of the 3rd and 150th motorized rifle divisions. They are based near Ukraine in Rostov-on-Don and Belgorod respectively, a short drive from the border. When these units return home, they will be closer to Ukraine than they were in Crimea.

Other Russian footage on Tuesday – including drone fire – showed the elaborate departure of T72 tanks from an unidentified rural area.

CNN geotagged the location to a training ground near Otreshkovo, a Russian village about 120 kilometers (about 75 miles) from the border. But the direction taken by the tank convoy at the start is far from conclusive.

The video shows tanks heading in two different directions, both towards a station and towards the training ground.

The next day, the Ministry of Defense released more videos of the same unit being loaded onto a train, then later released another video of the train rumbling eastward at night. Its destination is unknown.

Russian diplomats have seized on the declared withdrawal of the Ministry of Defense to accuse the West of hysteria in amplifying the threat of an invasion.

Russia’s ambassador to the European Union, Vladimir Chizhov, told German newspaper Die Welt on Wednesday that there would be no attack “on Wednesday, next week, not in the weeks or months to come.” to come”.

For the United States and NATO, the jury is still out. US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that the United States estimated some 150,000 Russian troops were encircling Ukraine.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg agrees, saying: “The mere fact that we see movements of forces, therefore battle tanks, does not confirm a real withdrawal. It’s been a bit up and down, back and forth all the way.

But the trend over the past few weeks and months has been a steady increase in Russian capabilities near Ukraine’s borders.”

CNN – along with a number of independent experts – continues to monitor and geotag social media content from Russia and Belarus that shows its army on the move.

The proof at hand is that many Russian armors stay close to the Ukrainian border – and some of them are still getting closer.

On Wednesday, T90 tanks were filmed moving through slush in Tomarovka, a village in Russia’s Belgorod region a few miles from the Ukrainian border, according to multiple videos reviewed.

In the nearby village of Veselaya Lopan, satellite images show a new temporary military camp.

And over the past week, more helicopters – both combat and transport – have arrived in both Crimea and areas near Ukraine’s eastern border, according to satellite images reviewed by CNN.

These helicopters would provide significant air support for any ground offensive.

New satellite images also show a curious development in southern Belarus, about six kilometers (about four miles) from the Ukrainian border and also close to the Chernobyl exclusion zone. A long floating bridge has been built in recent days over the Pripyat River, not far from where Belarusian and Russian forces are carrying out large joint exercises.

Satellite images taken over the past two days show construction of a new road and a tactical bridge being built over a key river in Belarus less than six kilometers from the Ukrainian border.
The new road construction and bridge, over the Pripyat River in southern Belarus, is less than 4 miles from the border and could be used by Russian forces currently in Belarus to get to Kiev.

Although there is little military activity in the immediate area, the bridge would significantly reduce the time needed to reach the Ukrainian border and avoid population centers. Additional satellite imagery from Planet Labs also shows that after January 8, a new road was built that leads to the bridge.

Western intelligence and military services are closely monitoring construction as part of the support infrastructure Russia is putting in place ahead of a possible invasion, three sources familiar with the matter told CNN.

Yet past exercises in the region have included the construction of pontoons, highlighting a well-known dilemma in intelligence capture: how to reconcile growing and changing capabilities with unknown intent.

Another as yet unexplained development: Maxar had previously observed the establishment of a large detachment of Russian forces – including tanks – near the town of in southeastern Belarus, about 30 miles from the border.

Those forces appear to have dispersed, Maxar said, noting that “a military convoy was seen moving west in today’s footage.”

Russian forces, including tanks, appear to have dispersed from a camp near Rechytsa, Belarus.  In one of the satellite images, a convoy of vehicles is seen moving west, deeper into Belarus.

Analysts say it will take at least several days to establish whether there is a real withdrawal of Russian forces from temporary positions around Ukraine, or whether – as many Western officials believe – it is more maneuverable.

The Conflict Intelligence team, which has a long history of tracking Russian military movements, told CNN: “We are currently unable to confirm or deny an actual withdrawal. We have seen vehicles of the 58th Army of the Southern Military District to be loaded onto trains in Crimea (where they had previously deployed unannounced), but we would need more time and evidence to say whether they are actually withdrawing into their permanent bases.

Konrad Muzyka, an analyst at Rochan Consulting, an aerospace and defense consultancy, said in a tweet: “Previously announced withdrawals meant more Russian troop deployments near Ukraine. New trains with equipment continue to be deployed. takedown would be a welcome development, but recent history tells us that these ads are not genuine. Need a few days to verify.”

In January and early February, dozens of videos on social media showed Russian forces heading towards Ukraine’s borders almost daily. So far, there hasn’t been a similar increase in content showing these forces moving in the opposite direction.

Katie Bo Lillis and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this story.

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