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Ukraine-Russia border: Satellite images reveal Putin’s troop build-up continues

Satellite images have revealed huge new camps of Russian troops, tanks and artillery near the Ukrainian border as Vladimir Putin continues massing his forces on Europe’s doorstep amid warnings he could invade within weeks. 

Newly-published images document at least three camps housing seven battalions of troops near at Yelnya and Pogonovo, between 100 and 150 miles from the border, which analysts say have arrived in the last month.

More images taken from Russian-occupied Crimea shows what appears to be dozens of tanks and artillery pieces parked on a base at Novoozerne, around 80 miles from the border, which have also arrived in recent weeks.

The pictures were released off the back of a leaked US intelligence report that warned there are now 50 Russian battalions at the border with another 50 being rapidly assembled in reserve, meaning Putin will be ready to launch an invasion using up to 175,000 soldiers some time early next year.

The Kremlin today called the state of US-Russia relations ‘quite lamentable’ on the eve of a video call between Putin and Joe Biden which is aimed at defusing the hostility. 

Tensions along Europe’s eastern border have been simmering since Putin annexed Crimea back in 2014, and have been threatening to boil over ever since Moscow began massing forces in the region starting in April this year. 

Russia now has 50 battalions comprising up to 94,000 troops stationed on the Ukrainian border with another 80,000 – 100,000 sitting in reserve and will be ready to invade within weeks, the US has warned

A camp containing five battalions of Russian troops is pictured near Yelna, 150 miles from Ukraine's border, within the last month as US intelligence warns Putin now has 50 battalions camped out on Europe's doorstep

A camp containing five battalions of Russian troops is pictured near Yelna, 150 miles from Ukraine’s border, within the last month as US intelligence warns Putin now has 50 battalions camped out on Europe’s doorstep 

Another view of the newly-built Russian military camp near Yelna, as US intelligence claims that Putin will be ready to invade Ukraine with an army of 175,000 men within weeks

Another view of the newly-built Russian military camp near Yelna, as US intelligence claims that Putin will be ready to invade Ukraine with an army of 175,000 men within weeks

Kremlin calls state of US-Russia relations ‘quite lamentable’ on eve of call between Putin and Biden 

The Kremlin on Monday described the state of US-Russia relations as ‘quite lamentable’ on the eve of a video call between President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Joe Biden when the two will discuss tensions around Ukraine. 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that what Russia regards as NATO’s creeping expansion towards its borders and long-term security guarantees, which Putin has said Moscow needs from the West, would be in focus on Tuesday’s call.

Putin has said he wants legally-binding guarantees that NATO will not expand further eastwards and a pledge that certain types of weapons will not be deployed in countries close to Russia, including Ukraine.

Putin is expected to raise the possibility of holding another U.S.-Russia summit with Biden too. The two men last met at a summit in June in Geneva.

‘They will need to discuss how the understandings they reached in Geneva are being implemented, to review what is being fully implemented, and what needs extra work,’ Peskov told reporters.

‘Of course it (the agenda) is bilateral relations, which remain in quite a lamentable state. And then it’s the questions that loom large on the agenda. Primarily tension around Ukraine, the theme of NATO advancement towards our borders, and President Putin’s initiative about security guarantees.’

That month, up to 100,000 troops were moved to the border in the largest show-of-force by Russia since Crimea was annexed – but analysts say the current build-up eclipses even that. 

‘The Russian plans call for a military offensive against Ukraine as soon as early 2022 with a scale of forces twice what we saw this past spring during Russia’s snap exercise near Ukraine’s borders,’ a White House source told the Washington Post this weekend as the intelligence briefing leaked.

‘The plans involve extensive movement of 100 battalion tactical groups with an estimated 175,000 personnel, along with armor, artillery and equipment.’  

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week made a tour of European allies to shore up support for Ukraine in the event it is attacked, with Ukrainian defence minister Oleksii Reznikov calling for more NATO troops – including British units – to be stationed in visible positions near the frontlines as a deterrent to Russia.

Meanwhile Biden is due to hold a phone call with Putin on Tuesday to try and defuse the situation, with Biden saying last week that he was preparing a ‘package’ of measures including sanctions to make it ‘very hard’ for the Russian leader to go through with any invasion.

EU and NATO allies have given their full backing to Biden to take a tougher stance against Putin after weeks of top-level intelligence sharing convinced leaders a Russian invasion is possible, the FT reported at the weekend. 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that what Russia regards as NATO’s creeping expansion towards its borders and long-term security guarantees, which Putin has said Moscow needs from the West, would be in focus on the call. 

‘They will need to discuss how the understandings they reached in Geneva are being implemented, to review what is being fully implemented, and what needs extra work,’ Peskov told reporters.

‘Of course it (the agenda) is bilateral relations, which remain in quite a lamentable state. And then it’s the questions that loom large on the agenda. Primarily tension around Ukraine, the theme of NATO advancement towards our borders, and President Putin’s initiative about security guarantees.’ 

Russia has been pressing western nations to give binding guarantees that Ukraine will not become a NATO member as Moscow tries to prevent the military alliance advancing closer to its border.

The Kremlin has also hit out at what it calls Western ‘aggression’ in the Black Sea close to Crimea, and increased bomber patrols which it says are straying ever-closer to its borders.

It comes against the backdrop of a global arms race that has seen the US, China and Russia racing to bulk up their forces and deploy new technologies as the post-Cold War balance of power dramatically shifts.

One battalion of Russian troops is pictured camped at Pogonovo, near the Russian city of Voronezh, which intelligence sources say has arrived in the region within the last month

One battalion of Russian troops is pictured camped at Pogonovo, near the Russian city of Voronezh, which intelligence sources say has arrived in the region within the last month

A second newly-arrived battalion of Russian troops is seen camped at Pogonovo, near Voronezh, which is around 100 miles from the Ukrainian border

A second newly-arrived battalion of Russian troops is seen camped at Pogonovo, near Voronezh, which is around 100 miles from the Ukrainian border

Russian tanks, artillery pieces and support vehicles are seen at a newly-built camp at Novoozerne, in Crimea, which is located around 80 miles from the Ukrainian border

Russian tanks, artillery pieces and support vehicles are seen at a newly-built camp at Novoozerne, in Crimea, which is located around 80 miles from the Ukrainian border

What are the border tensions between Russia and Ukraine all about? 

In a word: Power. Ukraine contains one of Russia’s most-important naval bases and the headquarters for its Black Sea fleet – at Sevastopol in Crimea – and acts as an important buffer zone between Moscow and rival western European powers.

With control of Crimea and the port at Sevastopol, Putin can project power across the Black Sea towards Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, whilst also exerting further control over nations it shares land borders with – Ukraine and Georgia.

Having a large Russian military presence in Crimea also gives Putin a toe-hold on the edge of the Mediterranean and, via his airbases, allows him to menace much of mainland Europe – giving Russia a sway over the continent’s politics.

That is why, following the Ukrainian revolution in 2014 which saw close ally Viktor Yanukovych deposed in favour of a government seeking closer ties with the West, Putin marched troops into Crimea and annexed it.

He subsequently declared the peninsula – which at the 2001 census was 60 per cent ethnic Russia – as part of Russian territory, pointing to the results of a referendum which gave backing to Moscow’s rule.

Since then, he has built a land bridge between mainland Russia and Crimea across the Kerch strait which allows him to move troops and tanks there with relative ease.

Crimea is now thought to play host to up to 10,000 Russian troops along with tanks, artillery pieces, planes, and helicopters – as well as the Black Sea fleet. 

Ukraine also acts as an important buffer zone between Russia and western European powers, making it harder for them to threaten Moscow, Russian military bases at Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don and Krasnodar, and nuclear weapons sites at Saratov and Bryansk.

That is why, also since 2014, Russia has been waging a proxy-war on Ukraine’s government in the Donbas region which sits just on the other side of its border with Ukraine.

Putin has been providing arms, funding and reinforcements to separatist fighters in these regions, which are majority-Ukrainian but have sizable Russian minorities.

Donetsk and Luhansk, the two regions which collectively make up the Donbas, are  38 per cent and 39 per ethnically Russian – again according to the 2001 census – and many regions closest to the border speak predominantly Russia.

Ukraine’s current government, keen to break with hundreds of years of Russian rule – first as part of the Empire and then under the Soviets – is eager to join western alliances such as the EU and NATO as a safeguard to democratic and free-market reforms that have taken place since the fall of the Soviet Union.

But Putin, unwilling to allow NATO to simply march to his doorstep by welcoming Ukraine into the alliance, has been seeking guarantees that Kiev will never be allowed to join.

The Kremlin has also denounced NATO naval drills which have been taking place in the Black Sea, near Crimea, as provocative and asked the US and its allies to stand down.  

America, for decades the globe’s undisputed super-power, is having to contemplate a world in which it faces a significant rival in China – with the latter’s economy due to become the largest before the end of the century.

For years, Washington has been pivoting its attention away from Russia and the Middle East and towards the Pacific – withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan and pressuring NATO allies to take on a greater share of the joint defence budget, while forging new alliances with Australia, India and Japan as it sounds the alarm over China’s presence in the South China Sea and around Taiwan.

Washington has also allowed a number of Cold War-era defence treaties which were initially designed to stabilise the security situation in Europe to lapse, saying that any new agreements need to include China to avoid handing Beijing an unfair advantage in weapon development.

That has created uncertainty and instability which has allowed Putin to take a more assertive stance on Europe’s eastern border, including via his close ally in Belarus – Alexander Lukashenko.

The troop build-up near Ukraine is seen as part of Putin’s new stance, though analysts are split over whether he is planning an invasion or whether he is only posturing in order to force Washington to the negotiating table.

Many doubt that Putin would carry through with an invasion – which would inevitably prompt international condemnation and probably new sanctions – but at least some take a darker view.

‘Putin has sharply raised the stakes. He is no longer bluffing,’ said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R.Politik Center and a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. ‘He’s ready to take a desperate step,’ she told AFP.

Hampering efforts at finding a resolution will be Biden and Putin’s personal relationship, which is at-best frosty and at-worst nakedly hostile.

When the pair first met in the Kremlin in 2011, Biden – then Vice President – is said to have told Putin ‘I don’t think you have a soul’, to which Putin is said to have responded: ‘We understand one-another.’

Biden angered Putin again earlier this year when he agreed with a journalist’s description of the Russian President as ‘a killer’. Putin quipped back: ‘It takes one to know one’.

They then met President-to-President in Geneva in June, a meeting the White House only agreed to after the first Russian troop build-up. Biden had earlier dismissed a request for a call with Putin, saying he was too busy.

While the Geneva talks passed without major incident, they were also far from cordial. The men spoke for only a few hours, no food was served, and they gave separate press conferences afterwards.  

Putin has recently warned the West and Kiev against crossing the Kremlin’s ‘red lines,’ including building up weaponry in Ukraine. Biden later responded, ‘I won’t accept anybody’s red line.’   

Heather Conley, a former assistant US secretary of state for European affairs, said she believes Putin is willing to apply ‘enormous pressure’ in the Ukraine standoff.

He is set on another in-person summit with Biden, said Conley, who is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And he wants to loosen Western ties to Ukraine which, she said, some see as ‘a sort of NATO aircraft carrier.’

Fyodor Lukyanov, a prominent political analyst close to the Kremlin, said he doubts Biden and Putin will agree on anything concrete on Tuesday, but he does not expect hostilities to break out if the talks fail.

‘No, this is hysteria whipped up by the West,’ he told AFP on Sunday. ‘Wars begin suddenly. If it begins, it will begin differently.’

Moscow seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and has since backed the separatist forces fighting Kiev. The conflict has left more than 13,000 dead.

What if the virtual meeting between the rival leaders goes poorly on Tuesday?

If Russia fails to obtain the accommodations it seeks, and all efforts at diplomacy fail, said Conley, her sense is that ‘Mr. Putin would then use military means to achieve his political objective.’

Biden

Putin

Tensions have been simmering for months between the US and Russia, with Biden and Putin due to have a phone call this week in an attempt to defuse the situation before it spills over into conflict

A Ukrainian soldier crouches in a trench near the frontline with Russia, where a proxy-war has been fought against Russian-backed separatists for years

A Ukrainian soldier crouches in a trench near the frontline with Russia, where a proxy-war has been fought against Russian-backed separatists for years

Ukrainian troops radio for a battlefield report in a dug-out near the frontline with Russian-back separatists who have been fighting for years against government forces in the country's east

Ukrainian troops radio for a battlefield report in a dug-out near the frontline with Russian-back separatists who have been fighting for years against government forces in the country’s east

Russian state TV mocks Liz Truss for riding in a tank and warning Putin over Ukraine, saying she has a ‘touch of the bipolar about her’ 

Russian state TV has mocked UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss for riding in a tank and warning President Vladimir Putin that it would be a ‘strategic mistake’ to invade Ukraine. 

TV presenters labelled Truss as the ‘new Iron Lady’ in reference to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and said she has a ‘touch of bipolar about her’. 

The intended insult comes amid high tension between the West and Russia, with Ukraine calling for a NATO ‘deterrence package’ to stop the Kremlin invasion, and Truss warning Russia over its actions.  

Moscow reacted to the Foreign Secretary’s ‘provocative’ images atop a British Army Challenger 2 tank close to the Russian border in Estonia by airing the footage backed with clown music, and labelled her as the ‘new Iron Lady in British politics’.   

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss visits British troops on deployment to Estonia

Margaret Thatcher British Prime Minister stands in a British tank during a visit to British forces in Fallingbostel

Moscow reacted to the Foreign Secretary Lizz Truss’s (left) ‘provocative’ images atop a British Army Challenger 2 tank close to the Russian border in Estonia by airing the footage backed with clown music, and labelled her as the ‘new Iron Lady in British politics’. Mrs Thatcher – whom Ms Truss has frequently cited as an inspiration – was photographed in a British tank in West Germany on a visit to UK troops in 1986  (right)

Mrs Thatcher – whom Ms Truss has frequently cited as an inspiration – was photographed in a British tank in West Germany on a visit to UK troops in 1986.

The broadcast used a video showing Ms Truss riding the tank but overlaid it with the song Entry of the Gladiators by the Czech composer Julius Fucik, a melody associated with circuses to introduce the clowns.     

Footage from state-controlled Channel 1 shows presenter Anatoly Kuzichev telling his viewers : ‘There is a new Iron Lady in British politics.

‘UK Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss had a ride on a tank in Estonia.

‘During joint drills in the Baltics, Truss claimed she wants a world where democracies proper – not just survive.

‘Apparently a tank ride, even (in Estonia), promotes prosperity.’

Kuzichev suggested the images of Truss on a tank were an upgrade on UK Prime Minister Johnson at the Peppa Pig ‘fun fair’.

Another presenter on the show, Artyom Sheynin, accused Truss of having a ‘touch of bipolar about her’. 

He said: ‘Things got a bit too much for the British foreign secretary, who said ‘leave me alone’, jumped into a tank and started driving towards the Russian border.

‘Of course, she was stopped by the Estonians, barely after 150 metres (500ft). You know, who knows what she might have done?’

His rant went on: ‘I can understand that her nerves are giving way.

‘She probably doesn’t know herself what’s going on. First, there’s war, then there isn’t, first [the Russians] are massing forces, then they’re not. Nothing is clear.

‘And this is the same girl who was concerned about stability on the European continent. Well, maybe she has a touch of bipolar about her.’

Official Kremlin daily newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta also mocked the Foreign Secretary’s tank ride.

‘The Englishwoman was unable to come up with anything better than to ride around in the Baltics – in the immediate vicinity of Russia’s border – in a British Challenger 2 tank and make new threats against Moscow,’ it stated.

‘Demonstratively rattling with the tracks of a 64 tonne combat vehicle, in Estonia Truss met the UK troops deployed as part of Nato’s collective defence there.’

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