Russian Artillery Moving Into “Attack Positions” Along Ukraine Border: Report (Updated)

CBS News has reported that Russian artillery units have moved into “attack positions” in preparation for a new invasion of Ukraine, citing U.S. officials. At the same time, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says that he has been informed that the Kremlin will launch this operation this Wednesday, February 16th, and that he has declared the day a holiday to demonstrate the country’s unity in response.

“Some Russian units have left their assembly areas – the bumper-to-bumper formations seen in satellite photos – and are beginning to move into ‘attack positions,’ according to the [U.S.] official,” CBS News’ story said. “This movement marks a change since Sunday, when some of the units had left the assembly areas but had not yet taken what could be viewed as attack positions.”

For weeks now, experts and observers have also been scrutinizing publicly available satellite images of areas of southwestern Russia and Belarus near those countries’ borders with Ukraine, as well as pictures and videos taken by individuals on the ground, all showing a steady torrent of Russian forces flowing into those regions. Reports indicate that Russia has moved at least 60 percent of all of its battalion tactical groups, its primary ground combat formations, to locations near the country’s borders with Ukraine, as well as into neighboring Belarus. Some of these elements have come all the way from the opposite side of the country. The Russian government says that this is all ostensibly for exercises, though it has long been understood that if a new invasion of Ukraine comes, it would most likely come during these drills or shortly after their conclusion.

These deployments have included air and naval assets, in addition to ground forces. For instance, just this weekend, a new image from Planet Labs emerged showing that the number of Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft Luninets Air Base in Belarus had jumped from 15 to 32. It’s not clear whether these are all Belarusian or Russian jets, or a mixture of aircraft from both countries. An S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile unit also now appears to be operational at that base.

On the naval end of things, six large landing ships recently arrived in the Black Sea, where they have bolstered the Russian Navy’s already significant amphibious warfare and other capabilities. A number of other Russian warships are now operating in the Mediterranean Sea, as well.

Russia and Ukraine have already been embroiled in a relatively low-level conflict since 2014. That year, Russian forces seized Ukraine’s Crimea region and then subsequently began actively supporting ostensibly local “separatists” fighting against the government in Kyiv.

Though there does not appear to be any independent analysis yet showing these new worrisome movements by Russian artillery units, this report is certainly in line with recent public warnings from American officials, as well as other reports citing anonymous U.S. government sources. This includes stories in the past few days that say that the Kremlin could launch a large-scale military incursion into Ukraine as soon as this Wednesday, February 16.

American officials have declined to confirm or deny whether or not they believe that Russia will kick off this operation on this specific day. However, they, among others, have consistently said that the Kremlin is in a position now to launch such a military intervention at a time and place of its choosing.

“We cannot perfectly predict the day, but we have now been saying for some time that we are in the window, and an invasion could begin – a major military action could begin – by Russia in Ukraine any day now,” U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union” this weekend when asked about these reports. “That includes this coming week before the end of the Olympics.”

Experts and observers had suggested that any new Russian invasion of Ukraine would come after the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which are scheduled to conclude on February 20. The belief has been that Putin would be unlikely to do anything that would distract from that event and potentially embarrass one of his key international partners, Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

“We have seen over the course of the past 10 days a dramatic acceleration in the build-up of Russian forces and the disposition of those forces in such a way that they could launch a military action essentially at any time,” Sullivan said during his recent interview on CNN. “They could do so this coming week, but of course, it still awaits the go-order [from Russian President Vladimir Putin].”

“If there is a military invasion of Ukraine by Russia, it’s likely to begin with a significant barrage of missiles and bomb attacks,” he added. “It would then be followed by an onslaught of a ground force moving across the Ukrainian frontier.”

Travel alerts from the U.S. State Department and the foreign ministries of a number of other countries advising their nationals to leave Ukraine now while it is still possible to do so only further underscore that there are very real fears that a major conflict in Ukraine is about to erupt. Dutch airline KLM has already suspended flights to the country over security concerns and there are reports that others may follow suit, especially if insurance companies start refusing to cover commercial aviation activities in the region as the crisis deepens.

American citizens, in particular, have been warned that the U.S. government may be in no position to assist them in the event of an actual conflict. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has begun to drastically scale back its operations and relocate them to a consulate closer to the Polish border. Poland has announced it will allow Americans to cross into its territory from Ukraine without any advance notice and is preparing for a potential influx of refugees.

For his part, Ukrainian President Zelensky has sought to temper concerns about an impending Russian invasion, but he also appears to be increasingly swayed by the seriousness of the information he is receiving from the United States and other international partners.

“We don’t stare at someone else’s, but we won’t give our own. We have an amazing army. Our guys have a unique combat experience and modern weapons. This is already times stronger than the army eight years ago,” he said in a statement today. “We are told that February 16 will be the day of attack. We will make it a day of unity. The decree has already been signed. This afternoon we will hang national flags, put on blue-yellow ribbons and show the world our unity. We all want to live happily, and happiness loves the strong. We have never been able to give up and we are not going to learn it.”

Ukrainian officials have since denied that Zelensky, who has been publicly skeptical of the February 16 date, was in any way confirming intelligence indicating that Russia would actually launch an attack in 48 hours. 

At the same time, this follows comments from the Ukrainian President earlier today about his country potentially becoming a member of NATO that were almost certain to provoke the ire of Russia.

“It is understandable that we would like to join NATO,” Zelensky said while speaking alongside Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz. “It would guarantee our security, our territorial integrity. This [the right of Ukraine to seek NATO membership] is also enshrined in the Ukrainian legislation, in the constitution of Ukraine.”

Separately, Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, clarified recent statements that seemed to suggest that his country would be willing to give up its NATO ambitions as a concession to Russia. Prystaiko’s comments echoed those of Zelensky, reiterating that Ukraine has a legal right under its own laws to choose for itself whether or not to join an alliance like NATO.

“We are not a member of NATO right now and to avoid war we are ready for many concessions and that is what we are doing in conversations with the Russians,” Prystaiko told the BBC. “It has nothing to do with NATO, which is enshrined in the constitution.”

Since the country gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian government has expanded military-to-military ties with NATO, as an organization, and individual member states. The United States and other countries within this alliance have been important suppliers of weapons and other military aid in recent weeks – including Lithuania’s delivery of U.S.-made Stinger shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, among other materiel, just this weekend – to help bolster Ukraine’s capabilities and general capacity to defend against any future Russian aggression.

Over the past few weeks, NATO members, especially the United States, have also steadily deployed more of their own forces to bolster the alliance’s force posture along its eastern flank. The stated objective of these deployments, which have included a slew of air, ground, and naval assets, including the arrival of eight additional U.S. Air Force F-15 Eagle combat jets in Poland just today, is to demonstrate the strength and unity of NATO, as well as deter potential Russian aggression. U.S. officials have declined to rule out the possibility that any new major conflict in Ukraine might have spillover effects in neighboring NATO countries.

The Kremlin has made clear that it sees preventing Ukraine from becoming a member of NATO as a “red line” issue. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian President Vladimir Putin during a televised meeting today that the Kremlin continues to receive “unsatisfactory” responses from members of that military alliance in regards to this demand and other proposals it has offered for how to deescalate the situation regarding Ukraine.

Putin and other Russian officials have asked the alliance for concessions that seem all but impossible for it to comply with, politically and practically, even if it wanted to, including a call for a formal hold to be placed on the accession of any new members. The Russian government also wants the alliance to return to its force posture as it existed in 1997, to include a prohibition on the deploy any new long-range missiles in Europe and the removal of troops deployed to countries that joined after that date. NATO officials have flatly rejected these Russian “red line” demands, but have offered other arms control and confidence-building measures in return.

Still, Lavrov did seem to leave open the possibility, at least publicly that the Kremlin could find some kind of non-military solution to the brewing crisis.

“It seems to me that our [diplomatic] possibilities are far from exhausted,” he told Putin. “At this stage, I would suggest continuing and building them up.”

“We have already warned more than once that we will not allow endless negotiations on questions that demand a solution today,” he added. “I must say there are always chances.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who had his own televised meeting with Putin today, further insisted that the Kremlin has no plans to invade Ukraine and that its forces deployed in the country’s western regions and in Belarus would return to their home stations following the conclusion of the currently planned exercises. “Some exercises are ending and others will be over in the near future,” he said. 

This is, of course, not the first time Shoigu has insisted that Russia has no intention of launching military action against Ukraine, despite clear evidence of Russia already being engaged in such operations. In addition, after Russian officials announced a similar withdrawal following a buildup of forces near the country’s borders with Ukraine for “exercises” last year, it became clear that some units, as well as large stockpiles of materiel, had actually remained in place.

Beyond this, Russia appears to have rejected recent efforts to use other confidence-building mechanisms to try to defuse concerns over its intentions. Ukrainian officials say that the Kremlin has not responded to formal requests made through Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) for additional information to prove that its “exercises” in western Russian and Belarus are what they are said to be. State-run Russian media outlet RIA Novosti reported that a top Russian diplomat, Konstantin Gavrilov, said the country has no intention of attending an OSCE meeting today to discuss its military movements in and around Europe.

Ukrainian officials have gone on the record to accuse Russia of already conducting a variety of covert and clandestine operations to destabilize the country, including cyberattacks, economic warfare, and hundreds of fake bomb threats. The U.S. and British governments had previously issued statements about intelligence indicating that Russia had established networks inside Ukraine for the express purpose of seizing control of the government in the event of a new invasion, as well. There have been reports that the Kremlin, or its proxies, could attempt to stage some kind of false flag attack as a pretext for a Russian intervention, too.

All told, new reports and other developments surrounding Ukraine are now emerging at an extremely fast pace, and the overall situation continues to be extremely fluid. At the same time, if Russia is indeed poised to launch a new large-scale military operation against its neighbor, it will not be long before the entire world becomes aware of it.

Update 6:55 PM EST:

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has reiterated the Russian government’s public position that it is open to further negotiations over the crisis. At the same time, he has also stressed that any resolution to the current situation has to address Russia’s broader security concerns, such has those relating to NATO.

“First of all, President Putin has always been demanding negotiations and diplomacy. And actually, he initiated the issue of security guarantees for the Russian Federation,” Peskov said. “And Ukraine is just a part of the problem, it’s a part of the bigger problem of security guarantees for Russia and, of course, President Putin is willing to negotiate.”

Separately, Politico has reported that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan outlined a number of key items regarding Ukraine during a call with members of the House of Representatives. This includes that the Pentagon is looking into ways to continue sending military aid to the Ukrainian armed forces via land routes in the event that it is no longer possible to make those deliveries via air.

Update 10:20 PM EST:

The U.S. State Department has issued updated travel advisories for the countries of Belarus and Moldova. American citizens are now advised not to travel to Belarus, as well as Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region, in part because of concerns related to the crisis surrounding Ukraine. U.S. citizens already in Belarus or Transnistria are advised to leave as soon as possible.

The advisory for Belarus now includes the following:

On January 31, 2022, the Department of State ordered the departure of family members of U.S. government employees from Embassy Minsk.

Due to an increase in unusual and concerning Russian military activity near the border with Ukraine, U.S. citizens located in or considering travel to Belarus should be aware that the situation is unpredictable and there is heightened tension in the region. On February 12, 2022, the Department of State ordered the departure of most U.S. direct hire employees from Embassy Kyiv due to the continued threat of Russian military action.  Potential harassment targeted specifically at foreigners is also possible.  Given the heightened volatility of the situation, U.S. citizens are strongly advised against traveling to Belarus.

The U.S. government’s ability to provide routine or emergency services to U.S. citizens in Belarus is already severely limited due to Belarusian government limitations on U.S. Embassy staffing.

The advisory for Moldova now includes the following:

Do not travel to Transnistria due to an increase in unusual and concerning military activity around Ukraine. Transnistria is a breakaway region that is not under the control of the Moldovan government in Chisinau.  U.S. citizens should depart immediately via commercial or private means. Visitors may encounter difficulties at checkpoints along roads leading into and out of Transnistria. Taking photographs of military facilities and security forces is prohibited and may result in trouble with authorities.

The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens traveling in Transnistria as U.S. government employees have restrictions on traveling to the area.

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Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.