• Significant activity was noted in Belarus, annexed Crimea, and western Russia
  • The bases to which Russian tanks were reportedly returning are closer to the border
  • Many bases are in Crimea, which means that the troops will still be close to Ukraine

Some Russian troops massed on the country's border with Ukraine are moving, but instead of pulling back to the rear as the Kremlin has claimed, they are actually heading toward combat positions. Analysts and defense experts say the Russian claims of pulling back troops could actually be a cover to move combat troops, whose deployments are under intense scrutity by western intelligence, closer to border jump-off points for an invasion.

These doubts about the real intentions of the Russians are also bolstered by a deployment of an advanced fighter jet nearer to the Ukraine border.

Satellite images captured by Maxar Technologies showed significant new activity in Belarus, Crimea and western Russia, reported Reuters. Maxar has been tracking Russian troop buildup for last several weeks.

The images showed the arrival of troops, attack helicopters, ground-attack aircraft and fighter-bomber jets to forward locations. The images also captured multiple ground forces units from existing garrisons along with other combat units departing in convoys, Reuters quoted Maxar.

Moscow Times reported that Russia said its troops were withdrawing after taking part in the drills in Crimea, which it had annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

"The personnel-loaded armored vehicles, [including] tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and self-propelled artillery installations on railway platforms at railway stations," a statement by the Defense Ministry said. The state television also showed images of military units crossing a bridge linking Crimea to the mainland.

This comes a day after Russia showed the first signs of de-escalation by claiming to pull some of its forces back to their bases. However, Moscow did not reveal any other information like the number of troops and other units being pulled back, or where.

The troop movements may not surprise those who study Russian military history. During world war II, the Russians had become masters of feints, confusing and destroying superior German troops as they beat back the Nazi offensive and drove succesfully to take Berlin.

Military expert Ruslan Leviev tweeted the Russian claims were "misleading," adding that the bases where the Russian tanks were reportedly returning to are closer to the Ukrainian border.

Reports said some of the units that Russian officials say are "withdrawing" are based in Crimea. So, even if they return to their bases, they will still be near Ukraine. NATO's chief too had said he had no proof yet of a Russian retreat.

Ukraine too has not taken the de-escalation claim seriously. "On Russian statements regarding withdrawal of some forces from the Ukrainian border. We in Ukraine have a rule: we don’t believe what we hear, we believe what we see," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter. "If a real withdrawal follows these statements, we will believe in the beginning of a real de-escalation."

Recent satellite images also showed a new deployment of Su-34 fighter jets at the Primorsko Akhtarsk airbase in the Krasnodar region in Russia. The base is near Crimea and Ukraine's southern border. According to military watchers, the all-weather supersonic fighter-bomber may play a central role in Russia's military operations in the event of conflict in Ukraine.

Russia has amassed some 100,000 troops near its border of ex-Soviet Ukraine
Russia has amassed some 100,000 troops near its border of ex-Soviet Ukraine AFP / Sergei Supinsky