Israeli satellite images show rapid build-up of Russian military in Crimea
New satellite images released on Saturday show that Russia has been massing troops in the annexed Crimean peninsula in recent days.
Israeli private intelligence firm ImageSat International (ISI) said some of the military vehicles – including tanks, armored personnel carriers and rocket launchers – were seen outside the assembly grounds, “ perhaps preparing to move soon”.
The buildup in Crimea happened over the past four days, according to the ISI.
Images from February 15 show the area near the town of Novoozerne completely empty.
The ISI said the buildup of forces in the region should enable Russia to invade southern Ukraine.
The United States, which estimates that Russia has placed more than 150,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, has seen significant movements since Wednesday, a US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Forty to fifty percent are in attack position. They have taken place in tactical assembly for the past 48 hours,” the official told reporters.
Tactical assembly points are areas close to the border where military units are set up before an attack.
The official said Moscow had massed 125 tactical battalion groups near the Ukrainian border, up from 60 in normal times and up from 80 in early February.
The Russians never gave a figure for the deployment along the border with Ukraine, or how many are participating in ongoing drills with neighboring Belarus.
Separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine on Saturday ordered a full military mobilization, while Western leaders issued increasingly serious warnings that a Russian invasion of its neighbor appeared imminent.
Speaking to Israeli television, Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russian separatist government in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, said he would call for Russian help if the situation escalated.
“It is very likely that Ukraine intends to launch a military confrontation and go on the offensive,” Pushilin told the Kan public broadcaster.
“The ball is in Ukraine’s court, and we do not rule out that in certain circumstances, if civilians are killed, we will have to ask Russia for help,” he added.
The Ukrainian army said on Saturday that two of its soldiers had been killed by fire from the rebel side.
On Saturday morning, separatists in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which form Ukraine’s industrial heartland known as Donbas, said thousands of residents of rebel-held areas had been evacuated to Russia.