Recent satellite images show Russian troops and military equipment amassed in Crimea, the occupied Ukrainian peninsula, according to the report published by Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) under The Atlantic Council think tank organisation.
From February through April 2021, Russia amassed troops and military equipment into training areas in Crimea and Voronezh, prior to the withdrawal announcement. Within the Crimean Peninsula, troops from the 76th Air Assault Division and the 58th Combined Arms Army assembled in large camps at the Angarsky and Opuk training areas, individually.
Defence Minister of Russia Sergei Shoigu announced the withdrawal of troops in occupied areas and near Ukraine's borders. He ordered the 7th, 98th, and 76th Air Assault Divisions, as well as personnel of the 41st and 58th armies to return to their permanent bases by May 1. However, heavy weapons of the 41st Combined Arms Army remained at the training area near Voronezh in anticipation of the Zapad 2021 exercises in September.
According to the report, the Russian Defence Minister's statement claiming that “more than ten thousand” servicemembers partook in the exercises, does not correspond to reality as the real number of the Russian military should be in the tens of thousands.
"While most units headed to their respective gathering points, some units were spotted moving to undetermined locations, closer to mainland Ukraine. One unit was spotted moving to the peninsula from as far as the Russian far east, a trip that should take about a week by rail. Satellite imagery also revealed that military helicopters appeared at a previously disused airbase just 85km south of Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast," the report reads.
The research center analyzed the Russian buildup in the Crimean Peninsula by using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imagery provided by Capella Space, and open-source imagery posted online by people on the ground.
Russian military movements in Crimea
The report indicates that while the Russian military buildup in Crimea and Voronezh is substantial, exercises are ongoing in other parts of the country.
"It is not uncommon to come across videos connected to exercises in the far east, or vehicle deliveries. Often these are erroneously connected to the force buildup near Ukraine," the author says.
High-resolution SAR imagery allowed for a detailed view of the training area. For the past several weeks, units from the 76th Air Assault Division descended on the Angarsky training area, located on the southeastern outskirts of Simferopol in Crimea, by rail from Pskov, the report states.
"The imagery of the Angarsky training area was taken on April 21, 2021, and it was clear that some of the tents on the western part of the training area had packed up and moved. It is unclear where they were relocated," it added.
Online videos leaked military equipment
The author says videos shared on social media platforms allowed experts to define the type of equipment present at the training area. He asserted that over 100 videos of rail traffic carrying military equipment revealed.
"Trains moving to Simferopol carried T-72B3 main battle tanks, BMD and BTR-D airborne armoured vehicles, Nona self-propelled 120mm mortars, D-30 122mm howitzers, fuel trucks, and recovery vehicles, among other things," the research detailed.
The research also showed that the Lake Donuzlav airbase on the western coast of Crimea, which has long laid virtually abandoned and in disrepair, is back in use with Russian military helicopters.
According to the experts, such aerial traffic is not typical in certain areas, which usually host a small number of light fixed wing transport aircraft.
Peninsula remains heavily militarized despite withdrawal of the troops
The DFRLab said that it would continue to track Russian activity in Crimea and near Ukraine’s borders.
"While Russia has stated its intention to pull back troops, it is not entirely clear to what extent it will follow through. Even if Russia follows through fully on its promises, the peninsula will still be increasingly militarized with the planned permanent deployment of the 56th Air Assault Brigade to Feodosia, where the brigade will be reformed into a regiment," it added.