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Major Increase in Military Assets and Online Disinformation Point to Russia Invading Ukraine

On February 1, 2022, Overwatch assessed that “the Russian state may respond to the U.S. deploying a small number of NATO troops in Eastern Europe and NATO countries by adding more military assets on the border with Ukraine, or Belarus, escalating the situation, or with rhetoric, criticizing the decision on the international stage. Any further Russian military buildup will likely result in the U.S. placing additional military assets into NATO countries.”

Since the publishing of our 2nd brief on Ukraine, Russia, the Russian state has amassed the largest buildup of military assets in Europe since the Cold War. According to open-source data, there are 130,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. Among those troops are members of Russian Airborne Forces, known for their combat experience in Syria and Ukraine.

Additionally, research on social media platforms like VK.com and TikTok shows Russian tanks, electronic warfare systems, self-propelled Howitzers, and ballistic missile defense systems close to Ukraine’s border. Russian military assets have been seen in Belgorod Oblast, Russia, 49 miles from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.

The following video was posted by a TikTok user in Belgorod Oblast on February 13, 2022.

Further, satellite imagery indicates that the Russian state set up a field hospital on Zyabrovka Airfield, in the Gomel region of Belarus, where no exercises were planned.

Additional research from Overwatch showed that the local media in Belarus were unsure of why the Russian military was in their region. Also, a field hospital was set up in Osipovichi in the Mogilev region of Belarus, where there were scheduled exercises.

Twitter user and Russian defense policy expert, Rob Lee, shared a video of a PMP pontoon bridge in Kursk Oblast, Russia, 137 miles from Kharkiv. Pontoons have multiple uses, some of which include transportation of supplies, troops, and weapons over waterways.

NATO has increased its level of deterrence through deployments of U.S., U.K. and German troops in Eastern Europe. The U.S. is deploying 3,000 troops to Poland and 900 to Romania, while the U.K. sent 850 troops to Estonia. In addition, Germany deployed more troops to Estonia. Further, from February 28 – March 11, Lithuania is hosting a massive military exercise —Saber Strike and Crystal Arrow — which will include the U.S., Canada, Albania, Czech Republic, Italy, Iceland, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.

Disinformation

In addition, on February 1, 2022, analysts assessed, “Russian state media like RT, TASS, and Ria Novosti and Russian troll farms (Internet activists working on behalf of a foreign government to manipulate public opinions) will flood the digital space with disinformation about the U.S. and NATO, promoting conspiracy theories about the U.S. government, U.S. military, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.”

We have seen a significant increase in disinformation, ranging from comments from Russian Foreign Intelligence Chief Sergey Naryshkin, political leaders in Donbas, and Russian state media.

  • On February 11, 2022, Naryshkin said, “We have intel on Jihadi militants deployed by NATO and Ukraine to fight against Donbas.”
  • On February 11, 2022, the head of the self-proclaimed Donestk People’s Republic (DPR) said they found a mass grave of 130 civilians killed by Ukraine’s Armed Forces.
  • On February 13, 2022, the Editor-in-Chief of RT(Russian state media) Margarita Simonyan claimed that Ukraine could set up concentration camps in Ukraine.
  • On February 14, 2022Tsargard TVclaimed that Ukraine was preparing to invade areas of Donbas and that it had set up demining machines for minefields in the region.
  • On February 14, 2022, DPR’s Deputy Chief of the People’s Militia Directorate, Eduard Basurin, said that Ukraine had plans to invade the self-proclaimed DPR and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) in Donbas.

Russian Separatists

Further, Overwatch analysts assessed in our January 13, 2022, brief on Ukraine, “Should the Russians invade, their forces would support the Russian Separatists fighting for the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk’s People’s Republic. Further, as Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014, he could potentially annex the DPR and LPR and station Russian troops in both territories.”

  • On February 14, 2022, DPR leader Denis Pushilin said that in the event of an invasion by the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the DPR could turn to Russia.
  • On February 14, 2022, Russian State Duma members, Viktor Vodolatsky and Artyom Turov appealed to the State Duma of the Federal Assembly to recognize the self-proclaimed DPR and LPR.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and General of the Army and Minister of Defense Sergey Shoigu, met on Monday. During those discussions, Shoigu claimed that some of Russia’s military drills were over, with others close to completion.

However, according to the Pentagon, the Russian state boosted its forces on Ukraine’s border over the weekend.

Additionally, in a February 14, 2022, interview with The Guardian, Russia’s Ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, said Russia was within its rights to counterattack if it felt it needed to protect Russian citizens living in Eastern Ukraine.

U.S. and Ukraine

Also, with the time of this report, U.S. Embassy operations in Kyiv is moving to Lviv, which is 340 miles away from Ukraine’s capital. The U.S. has called for U.S. citizens to leave Ukraine, and said it has no plans to send in the U.S. military to evacuate citizens. However, as we saw in Afghanistan, nonprofit organizations are volunteering their resources and time to help Americans in Ukraine. Project Dynamo, which has helped rescue many Afghans, says that it is laying the groundwork for rescue operations in Ukraine, in the event of a Russian invasion.

According to CBS News, Russian long-range artillery and rocket launchers have moved into attack positions on the Russia-Ukraine border. Pentagon Press Secretary and U.S. Navy Admiral (Ret.) John F. Kirby said on Monday of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “He continues to do the things you would expect one to do if one was planning a major military action.”

The significant Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border isn’t deterring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky from the country’s commitment to joining NATO. Likewise, the U.S. position remains unchanged, supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and providing it with financial and defensive aid.

OUR ASSESSMENT

The Russian state and Vladimir Putin continue applying pressure on the international community through physical movements and placements of forces and the incremental influence on the situation and public opinion. International opinion and support prominently rely on “owning the narrative,” and increased Russian claims and assertions remain visible as Russia influences international players and reinforces their populace support within Ukraine.

The influence campaigns will intensify to portray Russia in the most favorable image as attempting to protect the DPR and LPR people from the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Overwatch’s recent assessments provided insight into the meetings with DPR and LPR Leaders and other iterative activities attempting to provide credibility to their preferred narrative. Additionally, the DPR and LPR officials may stage a “false attack” to capture it on local and social media for Russia to use as justification for their incursion into Ukrainian sovereign borders and annexing those regions.

No orders have been given to mobilize Ukraine’s reserve forces, which would be a significant indicator of a Russian invasion.

Overwatch assesses that with the significant military buildup on the Russia/Ukraine border, stronger rhetoric from Russian officials, reports of Russian military assets moving into attack positions, and increased disinformation from Russian-owned or Russian-sponsored entities and actors, the likelihood further escalation between Russia and Ukraine is high.

Additionally, with tensions between the U.S. and Russia continuously high, cyber-attacks on U.S. entities and critical infrastructure remain a possibility should Russia invade Ukraine. On February 12, 2022, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency sent out a Shields Up Alert, saying, “Every organization in the United States is at risk from cyber threats that can disrupt essential services and potentially result in impacts to public safety.”

Should Russia invade Ukraine and the conflict intensify to where a member of NATO acts against Russia or Russia against NATO, a much larger scale war would result, impacting more than Ukraine, but many other European countries, in addition to the United States.

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