By Michael R. Gordon in Washington and Georgi Kantchev in Kyiv

April 20, 2021

The Wall Street Journal


Russia has moved warplanes to Crimea and bases near Ukraine to an extent greater than has previously been disclosed, adding to its capability for political intimidation or military intervention, according to commercial satellite photos of areas being used for the military buildup.


The photos, which were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, show Su-30 fighters lined up on a runway at an air base in Crimea. The aircraft, which are shown in a satellite photo from April 16, hadn’t been there in late March.


Other Russian military units on the Crimean peninsula include airborne troops, motorized rifle and armored units, attack helicopters, smoke generators, reconnaissance drones, jamming equipment and a military hospital, the photos indicate.


Those forces and the stationing of Su-34, Su-30, Su-27, Su-25 and Su-24 aircraft elsewhere in the region, which are also depicted in the photos, have strengthened Moscow’s political leverage to coerce Ukraine, current and former officials say.  “They have appropriately deployed the various elements of airpower that would be needed to establish air superiority over the battlefield and directly support the ground troops,” said Philip Breedlove, a retired U.S. Air Force general who served as the top NATO military commander when Russian forces seized Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine in 2014.


Gen. Breedlove said the photos indicated that the Russian units weren’t poised to strike immediately but said Moscow has multiple options to take military action.  Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns provided a similar assessment to Congress last week, noting that the Russian deployments might be intended to intimidate the Ukrainian government and send a message to the Biden administration. “That buildup has reached the point where, you know, it could also provide the basis for a limited military incursion as well,” Mr. Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “So it’s something not only the United States, but also our allies have to take very seriously.”


Biden administration officials have been preparing options to provide lethal and nonlethal military aid to Ukraine in the event of a Russian attack. The options include antitank, antiship and antiaircraft systems, according to a person familiar with the deliberations, though they haven’t yet been presented to President Biden for a decision. The administration is also considering more economic sanctions against Russia, administration officials say.  CIA Director William Burns said the Russian deployments might be intended to intimidate the Ukrainian government.

Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu said last week that the country was conducting exercises in response to moves by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that “threaten Russia” and has accused Ukrainian authorities of trying to stoke up tensions.


The satellite photos were taken between March 27 and April 16 by Maxar Technologies, a commercial satellite and imaging company that provides extensive imagery to the U.S. and other Western governments. Dan Jablonsky, the company’s chief executive, said it was making the unclassified photos public because of a commitment to transparency but hadn’t been asked to do so by the U.S. government.


“I think it removes some of the uncertainty and doubt about what is really happening in a fairly critical region of the world,” Mr. Jablonsky said.


U.S. officials estimate that there are currently as many as 80,000 Russians in Crimea and near Ukraine. That is nearly double the Russian force deployed there about four weeks ago, the officials said. The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, put the number at more than 100,000, which he said would make it larger than the force the Russians deployed when they seized Crimea in 2014 and sent troops into eastern Ukraine.


According to one U.S. military official, the Russian force currently includes 48 battalion tactical groups, which consist of several hundred soldiers and officers each. U.S. intelligence, however, hasn’t yet spotted all of the logistics capabilities and supporting units that would generally be used for a significant assault across the border into Ukraine, including ammunition stockpiles and deployable hospitals, the official said.


Su-34 aircraft at the Morozovsk base east of Ukraine had been moved to the flight line, the satellite photos show, a step that indicates a higher state of readiness.  “This is not a demonstration. It is preparation for a major offensive,” said Phillip Karber, president of the Potomac Foundation, a U.S. think tank, who has traveled extensively to the military front in Ukraine. “I am not predicting an attack, but within two weeks it will be an option at the Russians’ discretion.”


Other experts say that Russian President Vladimir Putin  might be trying to pressure Ukraine to resume the supply of water to Crimea, which Kyiv authorities cut off after the Kremlin annexed the peninsula. “We can’t rule out that this buildup is possibly a tool of coercion being used by Putin to get Ukraine to open the North Crimean water canal,” said Glen Howard, the president of the Jamestown Foundation, a conservative-leaning research center. “It’s a massive amount of military capability, and we don’t know in what direction the Russians will go.”


In Ukraine, the Russian troop buildup has left many guessing about Mr. Putin’s intentions seven years into a conflict that has claimed more than 14,000 lives. “In a few weeks from now they will be close to sufficient combat readiness to pursue a military escalation. By our estimations, their combined military force will reach over 120,000 troops by then,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Journal in written comments. “We don’t know whether Putin will decide to attack, but he will certainly be ready to do so.”

Oleg Zhdanov, a reserve colonel in the Ukrainian army and military analyst, said the fact that much of the buildup has transpired out in the open and has been captured on social media was a sign that Moscow’s main goal was political. “Putin is using it to cause a wave of panic,” Mr. Zhdanov said.


The situation may be somewhat fluid. The satellite photos show that a squadron of ground-attack Su-25 “Frogfoot” planes and a couple of electronic warfare aircraft that were observed in Maxar satellite images in mid-April at an air base at Astrakhan, Russia, left for another airfield by April 16. On Sunday, the Russian news agency TASS said that Su-25s had arrived in Crimea.


Mr. Biden, who spoke with Mr. Putin last week, has called on Russia to de-escalate tensions with Ukraine. Mr. Biden announced new sanctions against Moscow last week over election interference and the SolarWinds cyberattack. Moscow has denied involvement in the hack, and Russian officials have repeatedly denied interfering in U.S. elections. Mr. Biden said that he wasn’t eager to escalate but was prepared to take strong action, if necessary.


National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke Monday with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev. The U.S. and Russian statements about the conversation noted that the two officials had discussed prospects for a summit meeting later this year between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin. Neither statement specifically mentioned the Russian military buildup in Crimea and near Ukraine.


Gordon Lubold in Washington and James Marson in Brussels contributed to this article.