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What does the latest satellite imagery tell us about Russian claims of a withdrawal from the Ukraine border?

New satellite images released in the last few hours show what appears to be new Russian military activity close to Ukraine.

Analysts at the space technology company Maxar said one of the new images showed a recently erected field hospital in the Osipovichi training area. They also spotted training activity at the base.

The light brown structures in the centre of this image appear to be a new field hospital in the Osipovichi training area. Credit: Maxar

The analysts said another image showed that nearly 20 attack helicopters in a new unit had arrived at Zyabrovka airfield. But other troops that had been recently sent to this airfield seemed to have departed. Helicopters have been seen at this base before.

Nearly 20 attack helicopters can be seen on the runway at Zyabrovka airfield.
Nearly 20 attack helicopters can be seen on the runway at Zyabrovka airfield. Credit: Maxar

A third image showed a new military pontoon bridge which had been built over the Pripyat River, less than four miles from the Belarus-Ukraine border. However it was not possible to tell from the satellite image taken on 15 February alone whether the bridge had been put up simply as part of a training exercise.

This pontoon bridge which had been built over the Pripyat River, less than four miles from the Belarus-Ukraine border.
A pontoon bridge built over the Pripyat River, less than four miles from the Belarus-Ukraine border. Credit: Maxar

On 15 February, Russia claimed to have withdrawn some units from Ukraine’s border, raising hopes of a wider scaleback.

But NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, later stressed that there had been no sign of a military de-escalation from Russia and that satellite imagery disproved Russia’s claims.

Still, Russia’s Ministry of Defence has published videos, such as the one below, it claimed showed Russian troops and vehicles withdrawing.

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This video has been located to the Crimean Bridge, a Russian built bridge that links the country to the disputed region of Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. It shows trains transporting armoured vehicles and tanks.

Russia claimed other videos it linked to online also showed evidence of a withdrawal of troops.

Video released early this week, of tanks being moved onto low-loaders, suggested Russian forces might be pulling back from the border. The Russian Defence Ministry, which distributed the film, said the units were returning to their bases.

Western intelligence has dismissed it and said the build-up continues.

Using data in the video, it has been geo-located to Bakhchisaray train station in Crimea. That’s almost 130 miles from the Ukrainian border – these were not forces poised for an immediate invasion.

Surveillance has shown a lot of movement back-and-forth along the Ukrainian border, but the overwhelming direction of travel has been closer to Ukraine, not back into Russia.

Major units and battalions remain in place, ready to go if the order is given. So do does vital elements like blood banks and field hospitals.

Not until these elements start to withdraw, can we even contemplate a reduction in tension.

In normal times around 35,000 Russian troops are deployed near to Ukraine’s border, divided into battalion tactical groups. These units consist of around 800 personnel and some are also deployed with armoured vehicles, tanks or artillery.

This number has grown over the last few months to at least 130,000. This includes 30,000 troops that are conducting military exercises in Belarus – known as Allied Resolve 2022.

What would we expect to see if Russia were withdrawing its troops? Heavy machinery such as bridge builders moving, suggests Michael Clarke, Professor of War Studies at King’s College London, together with a stream of medical support, ammunition and food supplies moving departing the border area.

Professor Clarke told Sky News that “when those are withdrawn, it will be a bit more meaningful” as a sign of a wider Russian withdrawal.

There is also a lack of evidence online. Nearly all of the videos circulating have been released by the Russian Ministry of Defence or state broadcasters. It is likely that in the case of a wider withdrawal, more footage would be circulating on the internet, in the same way that it did during the military build up.

The identity of the units pulling back from the border will also signal whether Russia’s intention is a broader withdrawal.

Michael Clarke told Sky News: “Western analysts are worried (about) what has happened to the big Russian forces. The ones that came from the East: big Russian forces (such as) the 41st Combined Arms Army (and) the 60 Combined Arms Army.

“When the Western politicians see those armies going home, then they will believe that Mr. Putin is going back to something like normal.”

The Data and Forensics team is a multi-skilled unit dedicated to providing transparent journalism from Sky News. We gather, analyse and visualise data to tell data-driven stories. We combine traditional reporting skills with advanced analysis of satellite images, social media and other open source information. Through multimedia storytelling we aim to better explain the world while also showing how our journalism is done.

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