Russia continues to expand military presence near Ukraine border
Satellite imagery and open-source evidence reveals ongoing Russian buildup along their border with Ukrain
BANNER: SAR imagery of a camp in Valuyki, a Russian town located approximately 15 km from the Ukraine border. (Source: Capella Space)
The buildup of Russian military equipment near the Ukraine-Russia border is maintaining its pace from previous months as concerns of an invasion persist. The DFRLab has tracked Russian military movements throughout December, and found that units from the Central Military District (CMD) continued to use rail services to move equipment hundreds of kilometers toward locations near the Ukraine border. Most recently, units from the St. Petersburg area were spotted relocating to Kursk, roughly 100 kilometers from the Ukraine border.
A new military camp was discovered at a training area east of Kursk, and the 2nd Motor Rifle Division (MRD) appeared to be active in the region, according to a December 9 report by Janes. Open-source videos show trains with equipment from the 138th and the 25th Motor Rifle Brigades (MRB), from the 6th Army near St. Petersburg, had moved to Otreshkovo station, located five kilometers from this training area.
Movement near the Belarus border has also been identified. In November, Ukrainian intelligence suggested that Russia would move elements from the 2nd MRD into Belarus to pressure Ukraine’s northern flank. Video footage recently shared on social media revealed westward Russian military movement, toward the Belarus border, through the village of Kletnya in Bryansk Oblast. There is, however, no evidence that Russian military equipment has entered Belarusian territory in connection with a potential invasion at this point, and no true indication of what unit the equipment belonged to.
Given the large amount of equipment amassing near the Ukraine border, and the comparatively small size of known camps, the prevailing theory holds that there are several other undiscovered small camps, like the one discovered in Kursk, scattered throughout Kursk and Bryansk Oblasts.
The military camp identified by Janes appears to be located in the Postoyalye Dvory training grounds near Kursk. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery from December 12 reveals two areas for tents and vehicles at the Russian military camp. The southern area of the camp housed the largest collection of troops and equipment, with the eastern portion of that area containing tents, and the western portion containing vehicles.
The Janes report cited video evidence of a battalion tactical group from the 138th MRB consisting of 2S3 self-propelled howitzers (SPH) and T-72B3 main battle tanks (MBT) moving from the 6th Army in Leningrad Oblast to Kursk Oblast on November 21.
The DFRLab identified another movement from Leningrad Oblast, this time from the 25th MRB. On December 11, two videos were uploaded to TikTok showing a large number of MT-LB armored vehicles and fuel trucks, allegedly near Kursk.
Google Street View imagery revealed that the train was spotted near the village of Mitrofanova, on the western outskirts of Kursk, heading towards the city. Among the key identifiers used to geolocate the video is a shed visible from the road.
The MT-LB armored vehicles seen in the video were marked with squares, wherein the lower half was filled in solid white, consistent with markings used by the 25th MRB. Rail data confirmed this movement, showing the train departed from the 25th MRB’s garrison in Luga and headed toward Otreshkovo, where equipment bound for the Postoyalye Dvory training ground appears to be offloaded.
Another video, posted on December 14, featured mechanized bridges, obstacle-clearing equipment, and dozens of MT-LB armored vehicles moving towards Kursk. Twitter user @4emberlen geolocated the video to the town of Lgov, which lies further east on same railway identified in the aforementioned Mitrofanova video.
Despite the video being several days old by the time it was uploaded to TikTok, the footage confirms that the train traveled from Luga to Otreshkovo, suggesting it was in the same brigade as the train carrying 25th MRB equipment near Mitrofanova.
Previous DFRLab reporting noted an increase in vehicles at the garrison in Soloti, a town that lies approximately 15 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Equipment has also appeared in an area north of the neighboring town of Valuyki, where 3rd Motor Rifle Division equipment was previously stored while barracks in Soloti were being built. Twitter user @COUPSURE pointed out the arrival of new equipment in Soloti in early December, using low-resolution SAR imagery from the Sentinel-1 satellite.
High-resolution SAR imagery of the camp in Valuyki from December 9 shows the grounds containing a moderate number of tents and vehicles. Earlier Google Earth imagery from October 9, 2021 shows the area was mostly clear, save for a hangar which shows up as transparent in the SAR imagery.
According to defense analyst Konrad Muzyka, the increase in troops at Soloti can be attributed to the creation of a new regiment within the 3rd Motor-Rifle Division, although the possibility remains that some of the added equipment is unrelated to the new regiment.
On December 13, a video was uploaded to TikTok showing a Russian military convoy carrying T-72 MBTs and other military vehicles through Kletnya in Bryansk Oblast. Kletnya is a small Russian town that lies approximately 30 kilometers from the border with Belarus. The DFRLab geolocated the footage to the western part of the town and determined that the convoy was heading in a westward direction, towards the nearby Belarus border.
On the same day, a video showed what appeared to be the same convoy moving south through the north-eastern portion of Kletnya. The uploader of the video claimed that they were located 100 km from the border, which aligns with the approximate distance from Kletnya. Interestingly, the uploader claimed that such convoys pass through the town every day, a claim that is supported by other accounts on social media. Another video posted on TikTok and geolocated by Twitter user @4emberlen further confirms the route of the convoy.
The videos, and the apparent direction of the convoy, have left observers wondering where these vehicles came from, and where they were headed. Kletnya is about a 150-minute drive from Yelnya, where the 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA) has built up many of its forces, making it a likely point of origin.
The DFRLab has used public satellite imagery to note several verifiable instances of Russian military equipment moving toward the Ukrainian border, and within Crimea. While open-source footage and satellite imagery can reveal valuable details about Russia’s military buildup, it also raises new questions that have yet to be answered. Gaps in monitoring military movements exist, evidenced by observations in Bryansk Oblast, where trains loaded with armor were spotted moving to Klintsy, but could not be found afterward. Anecdotal evidence such as this raises the possibility that Russia is moving more equipment than it is deploying, but this should not distract from the fact that there is concrete documentary evidence of a significant buildup near Ukraine.
Over the past months, many the 41st CAA have relocated to Yelnya, and new equipment has appeared in the Ukrainian border towns of Soloti and Valuyki. While the camp in Pogonovo continues to grow, a new camp has been established in Kursk. Months into Russia’s military buildup, the pace appears to be continuing steadily.
Cite this case study:
Michael Sheldon, “Russia continues to expand military presence near Ukraine border,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), December 17, 2021, https://medium.com/dfrlab/russia-continues-to-expand-military-presence-near-ukraine-border-c2d527f58052.