Was Russia’s April Exercise a Practice Run for a Ukraine Invasion?

Satellite imagery shows Russian use of smoke operations in Crimea, part of an April 15 exercise.

Satellite imagery shows Russian use of smoke operations in Crimea, part of an April 15 exercise. ORBITAL INSIGHT / PLANET / ALLSOURCE ANALYTICS

The use of smoke operations and a large troop presence in Crimea may suggest that Russia was telegraphing its ability to launch a major assault on Ukraine.

Moscow’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 isolated Russia internationally, but also secured a foothold that could be used to attack the rest of Ukraine. New analysis shows that a recent exercise on the peninsula may have been practice for a wider invasion.

Data analysis firm Orbital Insight used its GO platform to analyze satellite imagery, cell phone pings, and other pieces of open-source information from Crimea during the exercise, which ran from mid-March until May. 

At the time, the buildup of more than 100,000 troops sparked concern that Russia was training to expand military operations into Ukraine, said Dan Soller, the senior advisor on national security programs at Orbital Insight.

In addition to previously revealed satellite imagery showing a large buildup of aircraft on the airfield near Novofedorivka (on the western coast), the Orbital Insight analysis (with images from PLANET and partner AllSource Analytics) shows trucks near the Opuk training ground practicing to use smoke to obscure troop movements. 

“When you have this many trucks out there doing smoke operations, that’s pretty significant because that’s a costly exercise to do,” said Stoller, a former Army and NGA intelligence officer. “Smoke operations in general are used for two things: One is offensive operations, and one is retrograde. As you can imagine, highly unlikely Russians were training to retrograde out of Crimea.”

“With 100,000 Russian troops in the area during this exercise…yes, this was a demonstration to show that they were training to conduct operations into Ukraine if necessary,” he said. 

A slide courtesty of Orbital Insight showing new analysis of Russian smoke operations on Crimea, April 15, 2021. 

But Middlebury researcher Jeff Lewis said, “Smoke operations are pretty widespread and the Russian media has openly reported on them in the past…I am not sure I would go so far as to say that smoke operations are inherently offensive.”

The White House this week pledged to increase aid to Ukraine by $60 million, following a visit to the Washington by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

“The United States supports Ukraine’s efforts to use the Crimea platform to focus international attention and action on the humanitarian and security costs of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, with the aim of peacefully restoring Ukraine’s control over this territory in accordance with international law,” the White House and Ukrainian government said in joint statement on Wednesday. “Together, we call on Russia to recommit to the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and engage genuinely in conflict resolution efforts to end the war.” 

Tomasz Szatkowski, Poland’s ambassador to NATO, urged vigilance on Thursday. 

“Russians have showcased their readiness to deploy very significant capabilities to Crimea,” Szatkowski said in conversation with Defense One during the European Cybersecurity Forum in Poland. “The situation in Ukraine has not been going the way [Russia] want[s] it to go. They were counting in recent years on some sort of settlement… Both the previous government and the current one have resisted such pressure.”

Russia, he said, “may feel emboldened about a number of developments in the world,” such as the psychological impact of the fall of Kabul in Afghanistan to Taliban forces, which forced a chaotic evacuation of U.S. forces, civilians, and allies. 

“Russians may want to build on that psychological impact,” he said.  

Szatkowski pointed to Russia’s upcoming Zapad exercise in Belarus as particularly concerning. But, he said, Russia’s willingness to demonstrate large invasion capabilities doesn’t necessarily foretell a growing willingness to use them.

6 comments

  • Russia are hardly likely to telegraph an invasion, it’s not the way Russia works. If Russia thought they could invade, and take Ukraine easily, they would have done it by now. Ukraine has too many people that hate Russia, and Ukraine would make the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan look like a walk in the park.

    Liked by 4 people

  • The ‘unwavering support’ of the Biden administration has been proved to be so far short of the meaning of that statement as to be a very sour joke.
    NS2 is going ahead. Ukraine will not join Nato due to ‘corruption’, which is complete and utter bullshit.
    There are no new sanctions.
    Zel got a derisory $60,000,000 from his summit. If you added two naughts to that, it would be getting a bit closer to the mark.
    April was not so much a dummy run, more of an attempt at intimidation. It worked. The tiny poisoner got his meeting with the hair-sniffer in chief and a chance to mince about looking masterful (even if only in his own lizard brain).
    So intimidated was Biden that he even called off his planned naval manoeuvres in Crimea, leaving the British warship to go it alone.
    The Budapest signatories are not even prepared to put a permanent task force to defend Ukraine and Georgia’s interest in the Black Sea, citing the Montreaux Convention. It’s funny how they are so keen on honouring Montreaux, yet not keen at all to honour Budapest, isn’t it?
    At this time, Ukraine must do the best it can to ensure that a full invasion by the rodent would result in insufferable losses. They must do this by increasing defence expenditure and building new alliances. Biden pitched himself as a foreign policy expert prior to his election. He has in fact turned out to be the complete opposite and an isolationist to boot.

    Liked by 3 people

    • “Biden pitched himself as a foreign policy expert prior to his election”
      He failed to put in the word “fuck up” after “expert”. He’s only been fucking up. In domestic problems too, by the way.

      Liked by 2 people

  • “Russia, he said, “may feel emboldened about a number of developments in the world,” such as the psychological impact of the fall of Kabul in Afghanistan to Taliban forces, which forced a chaotic evacuation of U.S. forces, civilians, and allies.”

    To be more precise, mafia land feels emboldened due to the new-old president in the Yellow House. It’s Biden’s lack of strategic and tactical thinking, his inability to look ahead, his frailty and foremost his utter cowardice that encourages the trash country to go where it hasn’t gone before. Bat virus land too, as we’ve already heard. What use is the most powerful military force in the world if you have such a conspicuous wimp in the Oval Office?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Napoleon said, “It is better to have an Army of rabbits commanded by a lion, than an Army of lions commanded by a rabbit.” Both Obama and Biden are rabbits.

      Liked by 1 person

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