KYIV, Ukraine — Several open-source intelligence groups have identified what they allege to be new Russian military field camps — comprising artillery, rocket systems, a field hospital, and hundreds of vehicles — within a day’s drive of the Ukrainian border.
These reports come at a moment of heightened military tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Since late March, Russian military forces have mobilized near Ukraine’s southern and eastern borders, raising the specter of a military offensive amid a parallel uptick in violence along the entrenched front lines in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where the two erstwhile Soviet allies have been locked in a low-intensity trench war for years.
Using information gleaned from social media posts and videos shot by area residents, the Russia-based Conflict Intelligence Team reported the creation of the two military field camps in Russia’s Voronezh region over the past several days. One of the camps is located about 155 miles from the Ukrainian border; the other is roughly 93 miles from Ukrainian territory.
“It is quite possible for the [Russian] hardware to reach the Ukrainian border within 24 hours,” Ruslan Leviev, chief of the Conflict Intelligence Team, told BBC Ukraine in an interview.
A new Russian Army camp was set up in the Voronezh region bordering Ukraine, @CITeam_en reports. High-resolution satellite imagery obtained by Visual Investigations indeed reveals hundreds of military vehicles at recently formed staging areas. 🛰️📸: @Maxar https://t.co/GW2p4dcxhy pic.twitter.com/GlW9u9Xb4Q— Christiaan Triebert (@trbrtc) April 8, 2021
Janes, a UK-based open-source defense intelligence company, similarly concluded that “a staging area has been established at a training ground south of Voronezh city.”
“Janes has identified an influx of Central Military District troops from the 74th and 35th Motorised Brigades, 120th Artillery Brigade and the 6th Tank Regiment, equipped with tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and long-range artillery including 2S19 MSTA-S 152 mm self-propelled guns, TOS-1A thermobaric multiple rocket launchers (MRLs), and BM-27 Uragan 220 mm MRLs entering Voronezh by train,” the defense intelligence company reported Thursday.
Janes also identified the deployment of Iskander short-range ballistic missiles to Voronezh.
Investigative journalists at The New York Times Visual Investigations team, as well as the British investigative journalism site, Bellingcat, have also presented satellite imagery purportedly showing one of the Russian camps, which is located at the Pogonovo training ground to the south of Voronezh.
“High-resolution satellite imagery obtained by Visual Investigations indeed reveals hundreds of military vehicles at recently formed staging areas,” Christiaan Triebert, a journalist for the New York Times’ Visual Investigations team, wrote Thursday on Twitter.
That so-called staging area is equipped with long-range communications equipment and a field hospital, Janes reported.
“The Russian military posture at least in [the] Voronezh region is rather offensive than defensive,” the Conflict Intelligence Team reported Thursday.
Some Ukraine observers, however, are skeptical of the significance of the Voronezh camps. The Russian military maintains an air base in the city, for example, and it’s not necessarily unprecedented for military exercises to occur in the area.
The Conflict Intelligence Team analyzed videos posted to social media and determined that columns of Russian military hardware were moving into the Voronezh area, including heavy flamethrowers, multiple-launch rocket systems, and armored personnel carriers. Many of the vehicles bear license plate numbers from Russia’s Central Military District. Thus, the convoys likely traveled hundreds of miles to arrive in the vicinity of Voronezh.
The current Russian mobilizations near Ukraine are the largest since the battle for Debaltseve in 2015, during which Russian regular forces participated in combat against Ukrainian forces.
“However, there is still no certainty that a Russian invasion of Ukraine-controlled territory is imminent,” the Conflict Intelligence Team reported. “If it is indeed the Kremlin’s goal to put pressure on Kyiv and Washington, then it would be logical to deploy the Russian troops in a sufficiently threatening manner — such as across the border from Ukraine’s Kharkiv and northern Luhansk regions.”
Voronezh — located roughly to the northeast of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv — is not near the borders of Russia’s client breakaway territories in the Donbas.
Since spring of 2014, Ukrainian forces have fought a stalemated ground war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region against a combined force of Russian regulars, pro-Russian separatists, and foreign mercenaries.
Residents in the Ukrainian-controlled, front-line towns of Avdiivka and Marinka have reported a notable increase in the pace of artillery explosions over the past several days — suggesting an escalation of the daily combat rhythm that has persisted for years.
One Ukrainian soldier was killed in combat Thursday morning, the Ukrainian armed forces reported.
The Kremlin blames Kyiv for the increase in violence and says Ukrainian forces are preparing to take offensive action in the Donbas.
According to a Kremlin readout of a Thursday phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel: “Vladimir Putin noted provocative actions by Kyiv, which is is deliberately inflaming the situation along the line of contact.”
Kyiv denies that its forces are planning any offensive actions.
“I want to be absolutely clear: Ukraine does not want war. We do not seek escalation, we are committed to a political and diplomatic solution to this conflict,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the French newspaper Libération.
“We will open fire only if there is a threat to our troops on the ground or if they are attacked,” Kuleba said.
Russian forces outright invaded Ukrainian territory at the height of combat in 2014. After two failed cease-fires, the war has frozen along a roughly 250-mile, entrenched front line.
The US and its NATO allies have repeatedly called on Moscow to cease funding, arming, and controlling the so-called separatist war effort in the Donbas. Moscow, for its part, denies that it’s involved in the war at all — although Russia is a party to the conflict’s peace negotiation formats.