NATO images purport to show Russia 'ready for combat' on Ukrainian border

Russia continues to deny NATO accusations that it is gathering troops on the border as it hastens to prepare for a possible cutoff of essential Ukrainian-made military parts.

Reuters / DigitalGlobe via SHAPE
A satellite image provided to Reuters by SHAPE and taken by DigitalGlobe shows what is reported by SHAPE to be Russian Su-27/30 Flankers and Su-24 Fencers at a military base in the town of Buturlinovka in southwestern Russia.

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NATO has released a new set of images that it says show Russian forces gathered on the eastern borders of Ukraine, amid accusations from the Kremlin that the alliance's evidence only captures military drills from last year.

The satellite images, unclassified and commercially available through the company DigiGlobe, consist of pairs of shots to show "before and after" evidence of Russian deployment in the field. The "after" set of images was originally released Thursday, and shows helicopters, planes, and military encampments. Russian officials claimed that these photos were misleading, and showed only military drills from last summer.

In response, NATO paired those shots with new photos released today. The new images show the same sites without military presence some time earlier. NATO argues that from the photos, "it is clear that the military buildup of forces occurred in early March 2014."

The satellite photo debate is just the latest exchange between NATO officials and the Kremlin, which have been waging a media war over the presence of Russian troops  just across Ukraine's eastern border. NATO's top official, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Thursday that "some 40,000 Russian troops are massed along Ukraine’s borders," and they are "not training, but ready for combat."

Kiev's interim government and Western officials fear the troops could be used to seize Ukraine's restive Donbass region. Donbass is the country's industrial heartland and contains a large ethnic Russian population, some of whom have occupied local government buildings in an effort to follow Crimea's path into Russia. NATO military chief Gen. Philip Breedlove stated this week that the alliance is weighing deploying troops along the Russian border to help calm and defend NATO's easternmost members.

Russia faces a particularly ironic dilemma, however, in its calculations over whether to intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine. Though Ukraine's military is generally considered inferior to Russia's forces, Ukraine has a key point of leverage: Its industry provides many of the parts that the Russian military needs to operate.

Moscow correspondent Fred Weir reports for The Christian Science Monitor that should Ukraine cut Russia off from this supply line, it would cause "serious damage to Russia's military capacity."

According to a 2009 survey by Kiev's Razumkov Center, Ukrainian factories produce the engines that power most Russian combat helicopters; about half of the air-to-air missiles deployed on Russian fighter planes; and a range of engines used by Russian aircraft and naval vessels. The state-owned Antonov plant in Kiev makes a famous range of transport aircraft, including the modern AN-70. The Russian Air Force was to receive 60 of the sleek new short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, which now it may have to do without.

Valentin Badrak, director of the Center of Army Studies in Kiev, says that even Russia's new Ilyushin Il-476 transport aircraft, which is built in the central Russian city of Ulyanovsk, cannot be produced without Ukrainian parts. He says Russia will be hurt by a cutoff of cooperation in "several spheres.... In Ukraine we have about two dozen companies that had projects with Russia important to Russia's security and defense."

The SS-18 'Satan' multiple-warhead intercontinental ballistic missile, all of which were produced in Soviet times at the giant Yuzhmash works in Dnipropetrovsk, are the mainstay of Russia's strategic missile forces. Russia still relies on Ukrainian expertise to keep them in working order. However, the Razumkov report notes that Russia's next generation of strategic missiles, including the mobile Topol-M, are entirely produced in Russia.

Mr. Weir also notes that Ukrainian industries and government are privy to some of Russia's missile technology secrets, which the Kremlin apparently is worried they might try to sell. The Kremlin issued a statement earlier this week claiming that Ukrainian missile manufacturer Yuzhmash was meeting with foreign nations about missile sales.

"We trust that despite the complicated foreign policy situation in Ukraine and the lack of legitimate supreme authorities, the current leaders of the country will be responsible, will fully comply with their obligation" to uphold legal requirements not to proliferate its missile technology, the statement said.

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