The TikTok buildup: Videos reveal Russian forces closing in on Ukraine

(Video: Courtesy Status-6, _dobro_100, natalinka...n / Twitter and TikTok)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and top Russian officials for months have been denying that Moscow is preparing to mount an invasion of neighboring Ukraine. But videos posted to TikTok and other social media platforms tell another story.

Sites where Russian forces are concentrated

200 MILES

LATVIA

Baltic

Sea

Moscow

LITH.

RUS.

Yelnya

Minsk

RUSSIA

BELARUS

POL.

Klintsy

Voronezh

Kyiv

Lviv

Separatist-

controlled

area

SLVK.

UKRAINE

Dnieper

HUNG.

Rostov

Odessa

ROMANIA

Sea of

Azov

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

BULGARIA

Black Sea

GEORGIA

Note: Data as of Feb. 7

Source: Rochan Consulting

THE WASHINGTON POST

Sites where Russian forces are concentrated

Baltic

Sea

LATVIA

Moscow

LITHUANIA

RUS.

Yelnya

Minsk

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Klintsy

POLAND

Voronezh

Kyiv

Lviv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

SLVK.

Dnieper

HUNG.

Rostov

Odessa

Sea of

Azov

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

Black Sea

BULGARIA

200 MILES

GEORGIA

Note: Data as of Feb. 7

Source: Rochan Consulting

THE WASHINGTON POST

Sites where Russian forces are concentrated

Baltic

Sea

LATVIA

Moscow

LITHUANIA

RUSSIA

Yelnya

Minsk

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Klintsy

POLAND

Voronezh

Kyiv

Lviv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

SLVK.

Dnieper

HUNG.

Rostov

Odessa

Sea of

Azov

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

Black Sea

BULGARIA

GEORGIA

200 MILES

Note: Data as of Feb. 7

Source: Rochan Consulting

THE WASHINGTON POST

In areas of Russia and Belarus near the Ukrainian border, onlookers have uploaded hundreds of videos showing sophisticated Russian weaponry and military vehicles speeding by on railways, highways and local roads toward positions near Ukraine.

In recent days, those videos have begun worrying military analysts. The scenes, the military analysts say, appear to indicate that the Russian buildup could be entering its final stages before an invasion. Here is what they are watching.

Movement to final staging areas

Video locations

200 MILES

LITH.

RUS.

Moscow

Minsk

POL.

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Kyiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

2

UKRAINE

1

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

Video locations

200 MILES

LITH.

Moscow

RUS.

Minsk

POLAND

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Kyiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

2

UKRAINE

1

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

Video posted to TikTok between Feb. 8 and Feb. 9 shows Russian armored fighting vehicles traveling along roads near Ukraine. (Video: pahan1103 and natalinka...n / TikTok)

Videos have emerged of Russian armored fighting vehicles driving on roads. Generally, tanks and other armored vehicles are transported long distances by train and then shorter distances by flatbed truck. “You don’t see mechanized units driving down the road unless they are getting near final staging areas,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at the Virginia-based research group CNA. “Once you see tanks and infantry fighting vehicles under their own power driving down a road, it means they are not far from where they are intending to be.”

Videos posted on social media also appear to show units from Russia’s 41st Combined Arms Army — which had been gathering in Yelnya, about 160 miles from the Ukrainian border — moving south toward Ukraine in the area around the Russian city of Klintsy, less than 62 miles from the border. “They are deploying toward what we call a final staging area,” Kofman said. “That’s important.”

In Russia’s borderlands near Ukraine, military buildup becomes part of the scenery

Russian warships moving toward Ukraine

Video posted by the Russian Ministry of Defense shows landing ships and other vessels moving toward the Black Sea. (Video: Russian Ministry of Defense)

The Russian navy has been moving landing ships and other vessels into the Black Sea. On Thursday, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said six landing ships spotted moving through the Black Sea had arrived at the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, in Crimea, after traveling 7,000 nautical miles from the Baltic Sea. Moscow has called the vessel movements part of a naval exercise.

Russian forces aboard the ships potentially could make an amphibious landing to invade Ukraine from the water, Kofman said. In 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, naval vessels were used to attack the Georgian port city of Poti. Other Russian vessels are being moved strategically to places in the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea to deter NATO from intervention, he said.

Launch of Russian military drills stokes fears of preparations for attack on Ukraine, as diplomatic sparring continues

Sophisticated missiles

Video locations

200 MILES

4

LITH.

Moscow

RUS.

Minsk

3

POLAND

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Kyiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

Video locations

200 MILES

4

LITH.

Moscow

RUS.

Minsk

3

POLAND

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Kyiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

Video shared on TikTok on Feb. 5 showed Russian forces moving missile launchers near the Ukrainian border. (Video: aleksandrsmoke / TikTok)

In one video posted to TikTok on Feb. 5, a man walking his dog in a Russian town a few hours’ drive from the Ukrainian border captured what appear to be launchers for Iskander ballistic missiles passing by on a snowy street. According to Scott Boston, a Russian military analyst at the Rand Corporation, Iskander systems are particularly concerning, because ballistic missiles are fast, probably very accurate and can carry an extremely large warhead.

“We would expect them to be used against high-value targets like headquarters, airfields and logistics nodes,” Boston said. “It is still at least somewhat difficult to discern Russian operational intentions from a system like Iskander because one could fire from Crimea against targets anywhere in southern Ukraine or from Belarus anywhere against northern Ukraine. The 400 to 500 kilometers (249 to 311 miles) range of the system means they can hold a great many targets at risk.”

Other footage posted to social media has captured heavy multiple rocket launchers — such as the BM-30 Smerch — moving on roads near the Russian city of Kursk and elsewhere. Unlike Iskander missiles, heavy artillery rockets are generally fired in salvos by the dozen — and a single battalion of six launchers could cause 72 rockets with tens of thousands of submunitions to rain down on a target, all arriving within seconds of one another, Boston said.

Experts told The Post that video shared Feb. 7 showed a Russian MiG-31K carrying a Kinzhal ballistic missile landing at the Kaliningrad Chkalovsk air base. (Video: Status-6 / Twitter)

In a video shared on Feb. 7, a Russian MiG-31K fighter jet carrying what appeared to be a Kinzhal ballistic missile was spotted landing at Kaliningrad Chkalovsk air base — a concerning development, because such jets are not based there, according to Rob Lee, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia program. From Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland, such a missile could put practically every European capital in range, Lee said. He noted on Twitter that this show of force was probably “designed to deter NATO from getting involved if Russia escalates in Ukraine.”

Russian National Guard deployments

Video locations

200 MILES

LITH.

RUS.

Moscow

Minsk

POL.

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Kyiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

5

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

Video locations

200 MILES

LITH.

Moscow

RUS.

Minsk

POLAND

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Kyiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

5

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

Video posted to TikTok on Feb. 6 shows vehicles and soldiers that appear to be from Russia's National Guard driving from Russia to Ukraine. (Video: tod8885 / TikTok)

Russia’s version of the National Guard, known as Rosgvardiya, appears to be deploying in areas near Ukraine, according to videos posted to social media. It is generally seen as a follow-on force that would hold territory seized by more specialized troops and secure ground communication lines back to military headquarters.

“It’s hard to get a sense of the numbers, but this force is better suited to crowd control and urban cordon, more so than the army,” said Dara Massicot, a Russian military expert at the Rand Corporation. Massicot noted the Russian authorities said they were undertaking an unannounced out-of-cycle exercise after the appearance of Russian guard units in areas of Russia near Ukraine began alarming locals and prompting social media posts.

Russian troops on the move

Video locations

Minsk

200 MILES

POL.

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Kyiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

6

Video locations

200 MILES

Minsk

POL.

RUSSIA

BELARUS

Kyiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

6

Video posted to TikTok on Feb. 5 shows Russian troops at a train station in Buynaksk, in Russia’s southwestern Dagestan region. (Video: _dobro_100 / TikTok)

Video posted online shows Russian troops gathering at a train station in the city of Buynaksk in Russia’s southern Dagestan region. The soldiers are almost certainly from the 136th Motor Rifle Brigade, based in Buynaksk, Kofman said, and were probably heading to Crimea, where much of their equipment, including armored vehicles, had already been prepositioned.

The soldiers appear to be about to board a civilian Russian Railways passenger train. Though soldiers often travel on civilian trains, the footage is particularly concerning, Kofman said, because if troops are moving toward Ukraine in typical Russian Railways cars, there wouldn’t necessarily be any indications of those movements on satellite imagery or social media, he said.

In the initial stages of the buildup, observers were pointing out that equipment was moving but troops were not. Michael Sheldon, a research associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said troops can be moved far more inconspicuously than weapons— and civilian trains is one method.

“They charter them. There are no civilian passengers on the train,” Sheldon said. He noted, “Now we’re seeing military personnel moving in trains separate from that which accompany their equipment.”

Special operations forces

Video locations

200 MILES

LITH.

RUS.

Moscow

Minsk

7

8

RUSSIA

POL.

BELARUS

Kyiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

Video locations

200 MILES

LITH.

Moscow

RUS.

Minsk

7

8

RUSSIA

POLAND

BELARUS

Kyiv

Separatist-

controlled

area

UKRAINE

ROMANIA

CRIMEA

Annexed by

Russia in 2014

Videos reportedly from Feb. 5 show Russian special operation forces and paratroopers in Belarus. (Video: MotolkoHelp)

Russia has deployed various forces to take part in “Allied Resolve-2022” military exercises held jointly with its ally Belarus, further raising alarm over Russia’s potential invasion plans as Belarus also shares a border with Ukraine. Videos posted on social media appear to show those units include special operations forces.

According to Ruslan Leviev, an analyst with the Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent Russian open-source investigative organization that monitors Russia’s military, in any large-scale attack on Ukraine, the Airborne Forces, as well as special forces, probably would play a decisive role: either in an assault-landing operation to capture strategic objects or as shock infantry.

“In Syria, the special operations forces were engaged in complex tasks on the front line and were tasked to eliminate particularly persistent pockets of resistance. This is the only type of Russian troops that have up-to-date experience in urban combat,” Leviev said.

Dylan Moriarty contributed to this report.

Read more:

In shadow of Chernobyl disaster, Ukraine forces train for a potential new crisis

Wetlands and radioactive soil: How Ukraine’s geography could influence a Russian invasion

Biden administration warns imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine a ‘distinct possibility,’ urges Americans to leave immediately

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