Satellites show Russia mobilizing near Ukraine
MOSCOW — NATO released satellite photographs on Thursday showing Russian military equipment, including fighter jets and tanks, that it described as part of a deployment of as many as 40,000 troops near the border with Ukraine. The release came the same day that President Vladimir Putin of Russia reiterated a threat to curtail gas sales to Ukraine.
The photographs, taken by a commercial satellite imaging company called DigitalGlobe, offered some of the first evidence of a military buildup that the West says Russia could use to invade Ukraine at any moment. The photographs were released at a news conference in Belgium by Brig. Gary Deakin, the director of NATO’s Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Center.
The Kremlin has accused the West of exaggerating Russia’s military presence along the Ukrainian border and has insisted that it has no plans for a second military incursion after its lightning-quick occupation and annexation of Crimea. Still, Russia has warned that it may take military action to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine if they are threatened.
At the news conference on Thursday, Deakin said the photographs showed a menacing force. “The Russians have an array of capabilities, including aircraft, helicopters, special forces, tanks, artillery, infantry fighting vehicles,” Deakin said, according to a NATO news release.
The photographs were taken between March 22 and April 2. One image shows more than 20 helicopters near the Russian city of Belgorod, about 25 miles from the Ukrainian border. Other images were taken further from the border, including at Yeysk and Primorsko-Akhtarsk, across the Sea of Azov from Ukraine.
The top NATO commander, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, said in an interview last week that Russia’s 40,000 troops could attack on 12 hours’ notice.
President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have demanded that the Kremlin withdraw troops and equipment massed along Ukraine’s borders. In a letter to European leaders on Thursday, however, Putin warned that Russia would probably start forcing Ukraine to pay a month in advance for natural gas or risk being cut off, and he accused the West of exploiting Ukraine and damaging its economy.