Russian Air Defense Missile Systems Spotted Moving Closer To Ukraine
With more Russian military units on the move, the head of the British armed forces issues a dire warning.
Russian military hardware, including medium-range surface-to-air missile systems, continues to pour into areas of the country adjacent to Ukraine, as concerns grow that Moscow could be preparing some kind of new invasion of Ukrainian territory. Videos that recently emerged on social media appear to show an extensive array of Buk-M1 air defense systems and related equipment, together with tanks and artillery, at a rail marshaling yard relatively close to the border with Ukraine. Meanwhile, Chief of the Defense Staff in the United Kingdom, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, has warned that a full-scale invasion of Ukraine “would be on a scale not seen in Europe since World War Two.”
The videos in question were posted to the Russian Telegram messaging site yesterday and have been assessed by the Conflict Intelligence Team, or CIT, an open-source information analysis group. One clip, taken from the cab of a moving train, shows elements associated with the Buk-M1 air defense system, known in the West as the SA-11 Gadfly, at Maslovka station in western Russia's Voronezh Oblast. According to CIT, the presence of 9S18M1 Kupol acquisition radar (NATO reporting name Snow Drift) indicates that a battalion-strength Buk-M1 system is present there. This video was recorded on December 6, according to the date on the train driver’s instrument panel.
The second clip, also taken at Maslovka station, shows other hardware from the Buk-M1 system, including 9A310M1 transporter-erector-launcher and radar vehicles (TELARs), 9A39M1 transporter-erector-launcher and transloader vehicles, 9T229 missile transporters on the KrAZ-225 truck chassis, and 9Ya266 transporter-containers for the system’s missiles. The same footage also includes T-80U tanks and Msta-S self-propelled howitzers.
In the first video, at least, there is evidence that the individual hull numbers on certain vehicles from the Buk-M1 system have been painted out, according to CIT analysis. In the past, these identification features have been removed from Russian vehicles as standard practice for participation in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Earlier video, which appeared on social media on October 29, had also shown elements of a Buk system, reportedly underway by rail somewhere in the Smolensk Oblast, further to the north, but also in a region bordering Ukraine:
Most notoriously, it was a Russian Buk system that a Dutch-led joint investigation team concluded had shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, after launching a missile from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine in July 2014. All 298 passengers and crew aboard the airliner were killed.
CIT says it has received information indicating that the various military equipment now at Maslovka has arrived in the last few days by train. These have reportedly come from Naro-Fominsk in the Moscow Oblast, Ilyin in the Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, and Krasny Bor in the Smolensk Oblast, all of which lie further northwest from the border with Ukraine.
Using this information, CIT has said that the military units involved are most likely the 4th Guards Tank Division, 288th Artillery Brigade, and 49th Air Defense Missile Brigade, all of which are part of the 1st Guards Tank Army. Notably, the analysts have previously identified other elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army, including the 4th Tank Division at Maslovka.
A previous movement of T-80U tanks from the 4th Tank Division:
These are by no means the first such movements of Russian military equipment close to the country’s borders with Ukraine, but it is significant that air defense systems are now also present in such strength. Previously, Western intelligence and open-source analysts have tracked Russia’s positioning of heavy armor, artillery, and even long-range missiles in these areas. For them to operate in a potential conflict, they would require a protective ‘umbrella’ provided by the highly mobile Buk-M1 system, as well as other air defense systems. Meanwhile, Russia already possesses a considerable airpower advantage over Ukraine, and each additional air defense system in the region further erodes Ukraine’s ability to conduct any kind of meaningful air operations in a future conflict.
Russian military S-300 and Buk air defense systems during the Vostok 2018 exercise. The Buk is seen from around the 0:52 mark:
In addition to this forward-deployed military hardware, Russia has also been increasingly bolstering the logistical and medical support that would be required for any campaign of significant duration. You can read our previous reporting on that critical component of any new major military intervention into Ukrainian territory here.
Official Ukrainian reports suggest that there are now approximately 100,000 Russian troops in the areas adjacent to the borders with Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Washington Post published a story stating that U.S. intelligence assesses the figure to be smaller, at around 70,000 Russian troops, but that Moscow is planning a large-scale intervention into Ukraine involving at least 175,000 personnel on the ground. That could happen by early 2022, an unnamed official from President Joe Biden’s administration has said, according to The Washington Post.
Fears of a potential new Russian invasion of Ukraine surfaced back in January and have been building for weeks now, although the two countries have been engaged in conflict since 2014 when Russia launched an operation to seize the Crimean peninsula before deploying capabilities to support separatists in eastern Ukraine fighting the government in Kyiv.
With the crisis seemingly escalating in recent days, Western leaders and military officials have waded in with stark warnings to Russia about the high stakes involved in any potential military action against Ukraine. While Ukraine is not a NATO member, officials from the alliance have voiced their concerns about the situation, especially after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that an expansion of NATO’s presence in Ukraine, especially the deployment of any long-range missiles capable of striking Moscow, would signify a “red line” for the Kremlin.
In the United Kingdom, Admiral Radakin, the head of the British Armed Forces, has described the continuing Russian military buildup as “deeply worrying” and that another invasion could trigger the biggest conflict in Europe since 1945.
In response to the potential threat of an invasion of Ukraine, the United Kingdom has come up with what Defense Secretary Ben Wallace describes as a “range of measures,” including “defense capabilities” that would be coordinated with NATO.
Few concrete details have been provided, but the U.K. Ministry of Defense has sent a reconnaissance team to Lithuania, with a view to the potential deployment of British troops to the Baltic country, which also shares a border with Russia’s heavily militarized Kaliningrad exclave.
President Biden, who had a telephone meeting with Putin earlier this week, said yesterday that he would not send additional U.S. troops to the region to dissuade Moscow from launching an invasion. The United States already has troops in Ukraine now and only recently deployed a new rotation to support the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine (JMTG-U). “The idea the United States is going to unilaterally use force to confront Russia from invading Ukraine is not in the cards right now,” Biden said.
Instead, Biden has stressed that Washington is preparing “strong economic and other measures,” although Pentagon officials have also said there are no plans to arrange for Ukraine to receive additional defense equipment at this point. The U.S. government is still sending materiel as part of previous agreements, recent arms deliveries to Kyiv having included Javelin anti-tank missiles, a pair of refitted former U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats, and small arms. Consideration had been given to supplying Mi-17 Hip transport helicopters that had been previously operated by Afghanistan.
With a growing war of words that’s now seemingly paralleling the buildup of Russian military equipment close to Ukraine’s borders, the situation is a delicate one. The appearance of a Russian Buk-M1 air defense system in battalion strength is further evidence that buildup but, by the same token, U.S. and Ukrainian officials continue to stress in public that there’s no firm evidence right now that Russia is fully committed to an invasion. With more Russian troops still being required in the region for a full-scale offensive, there is still time for de-escalation too.
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