Moscow, April 11: Nato released satellite photographs yesterday showing Russian military equipment, including fighter jets and tanks, that it described as part of a deployment of as many as 40,000 troops near the border with Ukraine. The release came the same day that President Vladimir V. Putin reiterated a threat to curtail gas sales to Ukraine.
The photographs, taken by a commercial satellite imaging company called DigitalGlobe, offered some of the first documentary evidence of a military build-up that the West says Russia could use to invade Ukraine at any moment. They were released at a news conference in Belgium by Brig. Gary Deakin, the director of Nato’s Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Centre.
The Kremlin has accused the West of exaggerating Russia’s military presence along the Ukrainian border and has insisted that it has no plans for a second military incursion after its lightning-quick occupation and annexation of Crimea. Still, Russia has warned that it may take military action to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine if they are threatened.
Officials said they had distributed commercial photographs, rather than pictures taken by military satellites, because of the complexities of declassifying classified images.
The US government has a contractual arrangement with DigitalGlobe, based in Colorado, that allows images taken by the company to be shared among federal agencies, as well as with American allies.
DigitalGlobe sells satellite photographs from all over the world, of sites of cultural interest as well as of military and geopolitical subjects such as a parade in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, in 2012. A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment yesterday.
President Obama and other western leaders have said that Russia has massed troops and equipment along its borders and have demanded that the Kremlin withdraw those forces. The top Nato commander, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, said in an interview last week that Russia’s 40,000 troops could attack on 12 hours’ notice.
At the news conference yesterday, Brig. Deakin said the photographs showed a menacing force.
“The Russians have an array of capabilities, including aircraft, helicopters, special forces, tanks, artillery, infantry fighting vehicles,” he said, according to a Nato news release. “These could move in a matter of hours.”
The photographs were taken between March 22 and April 2. One image shows more than 20 helicopters near the Russian city of Belgorod, about 25 miles from the Ukrainian border.
Other images were taken farther from the border, including at Yeysk and Primorsko-Akhtarsk, across the Sea of Azov from Ukraine.
In addition to accusing the West of exaggerating Russia’s military presence, the Kremlin said yesterday that any stationing of Nato troops near Russia’s borders would be a violation of international agreements.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said in an interview with the Interfax news service that Nato was prepared to breach those accords “in order to satisfy absolutely groundless fears, phobias and ambitions of a minority of its country members”.
In a letter to European leaders yesterday, Putin warned that Russia would probably start forcing Ukraine to pay a month in advance for natural gas or risk being cut off. He said in the letter that Russia had worked aggressively in recent years to support Ukraine financially, and he accused the west of exploiting Ukraine.