Russia surrounded Ukraine from three sides. Here’s where an invasion could be launched

As frantic diplomatic efforts are deployed to avert war, analysts warn that the Russian military poses an immediate threat to Ukraine.

But if an invasion were to happen, it’s unclear where it would start. Russia has created pressure points on three sides of Ukraine – in Crimea to the south, on the Russian side of the two countries’ border and in Belarus to the north.

Here are the three fronts Ukraine and the West are monitoring, and recent Russian moves detected on each.

Most attention has been given to the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists have been in conflict since 2014.

The main assumption of those watching the Russian moves is that Moscow could bolster the military might it already possesses in the region, making eastern Ukraine the easiest position from which to launch an invasion.

Satellite images obtained by CNN show that a large base at Yelnia, which contained Russian tanks, artillery and other armor, has been largely emptied, with equipment apparently moved much closer to the border in recent days.

Large amounts of weapons were moved to the base in late 2021 before disappearing, including some 700 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and ballistic missile launchers. Since then, videos on social networks show some of this equipment on trains and roads much further south in the Bryansk region, close to Ukraine. Armor and vehicles come identifiably from the same units that were prepositioned at Yelnya.

Stephen Wood, senior director of satellite imagery company Maxar, told CNN: “It seems to me that a considerable number of vehicles [tanks, self-propelled artillery and other support vehicles] have left the northeast car park; additional armored vehicles have left the more central vehicle pool.”

Meanwhile, increased activity in Kursk and Belgorod oblasts, which border northeastern Ukraine, added to concerns.

“We are seeing a massive influx of vehicles and personnel into Kursk,” Konrad Muzyka, military movement tracking expert at Rochan Consulting, warned on Twitter.

Phillip Karber of the Potomac Foundation in Washington, who has also studied Russian troop movements in detail, told CNN this month: “Russia’s strongest offensive formation – the First Guards Tank Army, which is normally stationed in the Moscow region – has moved south 400 kilometers (250 miles) and is gathering in the optimal area for a quick armored offensive on the Khursk-Kiev invasion route.”


Concerns have also grown over a large Russian troop buildup in Belarus, a country closely allied with Moscow that could provide another route to Ukraine.

Russia and Belarus began 10 days of joint military exercises on Thursday, the scale and timing of which have raised fears in the West.

Moscow’s deployment to Belarus would be the largest since the Cold War, with “30,000 troops expected, Spetsnaz special operations forces, fighter jets including SU-35s, Iskander dual-capable missiles and systems S-400 air defense aircraft. said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on February 3.

It is also the largest exercise the Belarusian armed forces have conducted at any time of the year, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The Russian Defense Ministry claimed the purpose of the exercises, called “Allied Resolve-2022”, included repelling “external aggression”.

Some fear the buildup points to a Russian plan to surge into Kiev from the north. A European diplomat told CNN earlier this month the gathering of forces was a “big, big concern”, noting it would be the missing piece Moscow would need to launch a swift attack on the Ukrainian capital.

The joint drills would also provide cover for flanking movement across Belarus and into northern Ukraine, CSIS warns.
And satellite images released by Maxar appear to show that the Russian military has advanced deployments to several locations in Belarus. The deployments are likely linked to the joint exercises, but other photographs show camps set up near the border with Ukraine, hundreds of kilometers from the location of the exercises.

However, if Russia were to focus on the Belarusian border as an entry point to Ukraine, the road would be strewn with pitfalls.

Russian soldiers are expected to negotiate the Pinsk Swamps, also known as the Pripet Swamps, one of Europe’s largest wetlands, which straddles the border between Belarus and Ukraine – dense, waterlogged terrain. water and densely forested area spanning 104,000 square miles.

This area hampered Nazi forces during Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s doomed invasion of the Soviet Union, in 1941.

According to the Institute for the Study of Warfare, “swamps can be difficult, if not impossible in some places, for mechanized forces to cross when wet.”


The peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014 would provide a natural home base for any new operation, but it is unclear whether Moscow would attempt to launch into Ukraine from Crimea.

A large deployment of troops and equipment was observed by Maxar, which estimates that more than 550 troop tents and hundreds of vehicles arrived north of the Crimean capital, Simferopol.

Then a new deployment was first identified by Maxar on Thursday near the town of Slavne on the northwest coast of Crimea, including armored vehicles.

These new deployments were observed on the same day that several Russian warships arrived in Sevastopol, Crimea’s main port. The Russian Defense Ministry released images of six large amphibious landing ships in port on Thursday.

The Ukrainian Navy responded that “Russia continues to militarize the Black Sea region, transferring additional landing ships to put pressure on Ukraine and the world.”

New satellite images show continued Russian military build-up on three sides of Ukraine

Ukrainian naval forces “are ready to develop all scenarios and provocations, to defend the country from the sea”, he added.

Any movement into southern Ukraine could be facilitated by troops in Transnistria, the Russian-backed breakaway region of Moldova, where a buildup has also been reported.

CSIS analysts say Russian troops could attempt a raid on Odessa, a Ukrainian port city northwest of Crimea, by “sailing their amphibious ships directly into the port of Odessa and moving directly into the city”.

He calls such a decision “a high gain but also a high risk operation”. Odessa is a well-populated city and urban fighting there would favor those defending it, while Russian forces would have to eliminate Ukrainian air defenses and then link up with troops arriving from the east of the country.

CNN’s Tim Lister, Gianluca Mezzofiore and Olga Voitovych contributed reporting.


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