Satellite pictures show multiple new field deployments of armoured equipment and troops in Russia near the border with Ukraine, according to satellite imagery from US company Maxar.
“This new activity represents a change in the pattern of the previously observed deployments of battle groups (tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and support equipment),” Maxar said.
The focus of tensions in recent days has been on the areas of eastern Ukraine that Russian-backed rebels seized in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east.
Media reports ongoing shelling in the Russia-backed separatist areas. CNN quoted the Ukrainian Joint Forces Command saying the “heavy armament fire” is directed on the separatists’ own territory in an effort to “falsely accuse” Ukraine of starting the exchange.
Possibility of war
The shift in deployments on the ground come amid reports of a loud explosion here in the centre of the Russia-backed separatist-held city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
Acknowledging “the real possibility of war,” Vice President Kamala Harris wrapped up a weekend of outreach to European allies with a push to bolster the West’s resolve in confronting Moscow with crippling sanctions as increasingly dire signs suggest Putin plans to order an invasion of Ukraine.
“We’re talking about the potential for war in Europe. I mean, let’s really take a moment to understand the significance of what we’re talking about,” Harris told reporters before her return to Washington on Sunday evening.
Europe, she said, might be at its most perilous moment since the end of World War II.
“It’s been over 70 years, and through those 70 years … there has been peace and security,” she said. “We are talking about the real possibility of war in Europe.”
The US embassy in Russia cautioned Americans on Sunday to have evacuation plans, citing the threat of attacks in Moscow and along the Russian border with Ukraine.
“There have been threats of attacks against shopping centres, railway and metro stations, and other public gathering places in major urban areas, including Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as in areas of heightened tension along the Russian border with Ukraine,” the embassy said.
“Review your personal security plans,” the embassy said. “Have evacuation plans that do not rely on US government assistance.”
The US warning comes after the Belarusian government announced it would extend its military drills with Russia – a move that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said made him more concerned about an imminent invasion of Ukraine.
The drills had been scheduled to end on Sunday. The Belarusian Ministry of Defence claimed the decision was taken because of military activity near the borders of Russia and Belarus, as well as the situation in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.
Belarus Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said the focus of the extended exercises was “to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders”.
The Kremlin did not comment on the Belarus drills. Russia previously said the troops would return to permanent garrisons once the drills were over.
NATO says Russia could use the troops as part of an invasion force to attack Ukraine. Moscow denies any such intention.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian President’s chief of staff, said the extension of the exercises underlined that official promises from Moscow should not be taken as binding.
Russia says the West is whipping up tensions by sending NATO reinforcements to eastern Europe.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the repeated warnings by the West that Russia was about to invade were provocative and could have adverse consequences.
Planned Western sanctions
The Biden administration on Sunday refused to unleash sanctions on Russia ahead of a widely anticipated Russian invasion of Ukraine despite mounting criticism from Kyiv and domestic rivals.
The West has threatened Moscow with severe economic sanctions should it press ahead with an invasion that they say would punish state banks and Russian oligarchs, limit exports and cripple the economy.