Three Western media outlets reported Russia pulling its troops to the border with Ukraine. On 30 October, The Washington Post wrote about the build-up of significant military contingents in the southern and western regions of Russia. Numerous video and photo materials on social networks became a source of such information. The journalists wrote about the movement of the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Russian Federation to the borders with Ukraine. On 1 November, Politico also reported on the build-up of military equipment near Ukraine and published satellite images taken by Maxar. Earlier, on 28 October, an analytical report by the British company Janes, available only to subscribers, mentioned the transportation of military equipment by trains near Voronezh.

Although the above-mentioned reports and investigations do not belong to the intelligence services, this information was taken seriously in Washington: the U.S. President’s Administration held consultations with its allies on the situation on the Russia–Ukraine border.

Kyiv gave a highly calm response to the reports. “According to the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine, as of 1 November 2021, no additional re-deployment of Russian units, weapons, and military equipment to the state border with Ukraine was recorded. It is most probable that the facts published in the media and on the Internet about the build-up of groupings of the Russian Armed Forces towards Ukraine are an element of special informational and psychological actions and are planned measures to re-deploy troops after the exercises,” reads the official statement by the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine.

Russia’s reaction to this situation is quite predictable: Russian President’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov called Western media reports “bogus stories” and repeated a phrase that has already become a cliché in Russian diplomacy: moving troops inside the country is our internal affair. The Kremlin used the same words to explain the massive build-up of its troops on the border with Ukraine in April this year. At that time, Russia concentrated more than a 100,000-strong grouping in the regions bordering our country. Later, when these maneuvers hit the headlines of the world media outlets, Moscow began to withdraw troops deep into the territory.

It is quite possible that the current military activity is of the same nature: to show strength, to frighten, to study the possible reaction of NATO and Ukraine itself. At the moment, there are certainly no large contingents. The equipment on satellite images belongs to the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Russian Federation. Its units are permanently based at the Moscow region and several regions northeast of the Russian capital. The Voronezh and Kursk regions, mentioned by the Western media, are not “native” territory for these units. However, it should be noted that the photos taken by Maxar recorded the equipment near the city of Yelnia (Smolensk region of the Russian Federation). It is difficult to call this area a border one: Yelnia is located near Belarus, almost 500 km. from the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv (provided that units move straight on, through the Belarusian territory).

The 1st Guards Tank Army is the only unit of its kind in the Russian Armed Forces. In the USSR, such large-scale groupings were created for deep, so-called dagger blows, aimed at rapid offensive operations on relatively narrow sections of the front. Theoretically, this tank army should become the first echelon in case of aggression against Ukraine or the Baltic states.

Time will show Russia’s real intentions in this game with the build-up of troops near Ukraine. If the build-up is gradual and as noticeable as possible, or even ostentatious, it will have all the hallmarks of an information and psychological operation aimed at intimidation, an asymmetric response to Ukraine’s use of Bayraktar drones in Donbas. If the build-up takes place in a very short time and is as hidden as possible (with the use of transport aircraft), it will be most likely akin to preparations for invasion.

Stepan Nazarenko

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