Satellite Imagery Assessment of the Crisis in Ukraine: Part Two: Border Deployments

I. Introduction

The Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has undertaken analysis of the crisis between Ukraine and Russia using high-resolution satellite imagery. This analysis forms part of a broader study aimed at investigating cross-border conflicts to identify early warning signs to aid in future conflict prevention efforts. High-resolution satellite imagery provides a particularly useful tool for monitoring and quantifying key metrics in border conflicts, such as troop deployments and the movement of military vehicles. By documenting these indicators, geospatial analysis can provide clarity in circumstances where other data are ambiguous, incomplete, disguised, or concealed.1

Conflicting narratives regarding events on the ground have defined the situation in Ukraine. Following months of protest in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, which culminated in the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovich, pro-Russian protests in the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea emerged in early 2014. These quickly escalated on 27-28 February, when uniformed armed troops lacking identifying insignia seized Simferopol International Airport and a military airfield in Sevastopol.2While the Russian government initially denied involvement in these events, the vehicles and military hardware associated with the unidentified armed groups led many observers to suspect that they were Russian troops acting as part of a coordinated military campaign – a deployment to which Russia admitted on 17 April 2014.3

Following a referendum, the legitimacy of which was strongly questioned by international bodies including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and European Union, Russia formally annexed Crimea on 18 March. Ten days later, United States (US) president Barack Obama expressed concern about the large numbers of Russian troops reported to be massing near Ukraine’s borders, and called on Moscow to de-escalate the tensions in the region.4 Russian president Putin reportedly ordered a partial withdrawal of those troops on 31 March, although NATO reported that it had seen no evidence of a redeployment of forces.5 Tensions heightened further on 7 April, when pro-Russian groups occupied government buildings in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv, in a move that US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed was the result of paid agents provacateurs “determined to create chaos.”6 On 10 April, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), the headquarters of one of NATO’s two military commands, released commercial satellite imagery depicting what it claimed was evidence of the Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.7 Russian state media contested the validity of this imagery the same day, quoting an unnamed “senior official at the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces,” who claimed that the images showed routine exercises which took place “in the summer of [2013]…including near the Ukrainian border.”8

Due to the volatile situation, the high level of uncertainty related to events on the ground, and conflicting accounts being disseminated by the actors involved, AAAS is conducting research on multiple locations in Russia and Ukraine using high-resolution satellite imagery. To this end, AAAS previously produced a report about the Ukraine-Russia dispute that analyzed the Crimean port of Sevastopol.9 This section of the AAAS investigation is focused on military installations and activities in Russia and Ukraine, particularly those sites that have been identified as areas of conflict or of a buildup of offensive forces. The objectives of this study are to characterize accurately the situation on the ground; provide clarification regarding the controversy over the imagery released by NATO; and by so doing, identify features that could serve as warning signs should the crisis escalate into a broader armed conflict.

Figure 1: Locations of sites analyzed in this report

II. Data and Methods

Using information regarding the locations of Russian and Ukrainian military bases10 as well as official statements and news media reports, AAAS acquired multiple images of southwestern Russia and eastern Ukraine. The region was imaged frequently in the days following the escalation of tensions in Russia and eastern Ukraine. Figure 1 provides an overview of the locations analyzed in this report, and Table 1 provides an accounting of the imagery analyzed. The dates of acquisition were provided by DigitalGlobe, the commercial vendor that owns and operates the satellites used to capture the imagery.

Table 1: Imagery acquired*
Date Sensor Image ID
2 July 2012 WorldView-1 102001001B972100
25 October 2013 WorldView-1 1020010025AFAD00
11 December 2013 WorldView-2 103001002A53D900
5 February 2014 QuickBird-2 101001001256FC00
10 March 2014 WorldView-1 102001002B07EB00
22 March 2014 WorldView-1 102001002CC5F800
23 March 2014 WorldView-1 102001002B93F500
26 March 2014 WorldView-1 102001002EB76300
27 March 2014 WorldView-1 102001002BA15900
27 March 2014 WorldView-1 102001002D811100
30 March 2014 WorldView-2 103001002F655500
30 March 2014 WorldView-2 103001002E487E00
5 April 2014 WorldView-1 102001002DE9FB00
*All imagery acquired via DigitalGlobe, NextView license
 

III. Results

Belbek and Kacha Airbases

Prior to Crimea’s annexation, Belbek airbase, located eight kilometers north of downtown Sevastopol, was a Ukrainian Air Force base hosting that country’s 204th Tactical Aviation Brigade, outfitted with the MiG-29 Fulcrum.11 During the crisis that preceded the referendum on annexation, the base was reportedly the site of a tense standoff between its personnel and pro-Russian forces. Analysis of satellite imagery reveals features that are consistent with these reports. The gates of the base, unobstructed on 5 February 2014, have been barricaded by roadblocks by 10 March. Elsewhere in the image, ten MiG-29s can be clearly identified, and are parked across the centerline of the runway at regular intervals in a configuration that appears designed to render the airstrip unusable by incoming aircraft (Figure 2). At the time, the pro-Russian forces were described by that country’s media as spontaneous “self-defense squads”.12

Figure 2: Obstacles deployed at Belbek airbase
On 5 February 2014 (left), both the runway and the main gate of Belbek airbase are unobstructed. By 10 March (right), however, roadblocks have been constructed (red arrows), and MiG-29s have been placed across the runway (yellow arrows). Coordinates: 44.69N, 33.58E. Images ©2014, DigitalGlobe, NextView License | Analysis AAAS.

In contrast to these defensive measures, the Russian airbase at Kacha, located nine kilometers to the north of Belbek, saw the arrival of numerous additional aircraft during the same interval (Figure 3). As the base of the Black Sea Fleet’s maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft, the units visible at the base prior to the crisis consisted primarily of Ka-27 “Helix” and Mi-14 “Haze” antisubmarine helicopters, as well as Be-12 “Mail” patrol aircraft. By 10 March 2014, however, these forces have been augmented by the arrival of seventeen additional helicopters, a level of activity that was not apparent in any imagery from prior to the crisis. Although some of the new arrivals were of dimensions consistent with the Mi-14s based at Kacha, others were observed which more closely match Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopters, which are not typically used in a naval role.13 Furthermore, the dimensions of the Mi-14 are nearly identical to those of the Mi-8 troop transport, from which it was derived.14 It is therefore possible that the aircraft that arrived at Kacha during the crisis were part of a combined force consisting of attack and troop transport helicopters. Further evidence in support of this hypothesis exists in the form of amateur video that appears to show a formation of Mi-24s and Mi-8s violating Crimean airspace during the opening hours of the crisis.15

Figure 3: Increased activity at Kacha airbase
 
On 5 February 2014 (top), only Ka-27 antisubmarine helicopters (blue arrows) and one Mi-8/14 (yellow arrows) are present on the apron at Kacha airbase. By 10 March (bottom), numerous additional helicopters, including ground-attack Mi-24s (red arrows), are visible. Coordinates: 44.78N, 33.55E. Image ©2014, DigitalGlobe, NextView License | Analysis AAAS.

Belgorod

In a statement released on 9 April by the US ambassador to the OSCE, the region surrounding the western Russian city of Belgorod was identified as the location of a Russian military buildup.16 If present, such forces would be located less than 40 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. Subsequent imagery released by NATO purported to show imagery of this force on 26 March 2014, specifically Mi-8 and Mi-24 attack helicopters along with dozens of tanks and over one hundred infantry fighting vehicles and their associated logistics and support equipment.17 AAAS acquired imagery of the site on four dates (see Table 1), including one scene from 26 March 2014 which appears identical to the image released by NATO on 10 April. The site, located on the outskirts of the city, appears deserted on 10 November 2013 and 11 December 2013. By 22 March 2014, however, hundreds of vehicles are present, along with associated tents and materiel. Dozens more such vehicles were observed to have arrived between 22 and 26 March (Figure 4), along with 21 helicopters whose dimensions match those of the Mi-8s and Mi-24s reported by NATO. Analysis of this imagery by AAAS corroborates NATO’s observations.

Figure 4: Build-up of forces outside Belgorod
 
 
On 11 December 2013 (top), this military base on the outskirts of Belgorod is nearly deserted. By 22 March 2014 (middle), hundreds of combat and support vehicles are present. Four days later, on 26 March (bottom), further reinforcements have arrived (outlined in yellow). Coordinates: 50.65N, 36.52E. Image ©2014, DigitalGlobe, NextView License | Analysis AAAS.

Novocherkassk

Located approximately 35 kilometers northeast of Rostov (Figure 1), the area surrounding the city of Novocherkassk was one of several sites for which NATO released imagery on 27 March 2014. According to that analysis, imagery showed elements of a Motorized Rifle Regiment, a probable anti-tank battalion, and an artillery battalion. As at Belgorod, AAAS was able to acquire imagery with dates identical to those reported by NATO. As in Belgorod, an area that had been an empty field in late 2013 was filled with hundreds of military vehicles, tents, supplies, and logistics equipment by 27 March. The widespread construction of earthen defensive positions and numerous serpentine tracks observed in the terrain were consistent with large-scale military exercises, as were the changing positions and formations of many vehicles and weapons systems (Figures 5-6). Unlike Belgorod, however, no helicopters or other aircraft were observed at Novocherkassk.

A final notable observation at this site had nothing to do with military activity. The imagery that AAAS analyzed to evaluate the area before the reported buildup was acquired on 2 July 2012, and shows the site’s trees in full leaf. The imagery of large-scale military activity, by contrast, shows trees that are almost completely bare, as would be expected for early northern-hemisphere spring (Figure 7). Furthermore, the matching dates and extreme visual similarity between the imagery obtained by AAAS and those released by NATO suggests a very high probability that they are, in fact, the same images. In light of these facts, the assertion18 that this imagery depicts exercises from midsummer 2013 appears incongruous.

Figure 5: Deployed artillery and infantry fighting vehicles near Novocherkassk
In this image from 27 March 2014, artillery pieces (red arrows) have been deployed in the fields northeast of Novocherkassk. Infantry fighting vehicles –likely BMP-3 or BMD-3 type, based on their dimensions– maneuver nearby (yellow arrows). Coordinates: 47.52N, 40.22E. Image ©2014, DigitalGlobe, NextView License | Analysis AAAS.
Figure 6: Buildup of troops and equipment near Novocherkassk
 
In July 2012 (top), the fields outside Novocherkassk show no activity. On 30 March 2014 (bottom) hundreds of combat vehicles, tents, and support facilities are present. Coordinates: 47.52N, 40.22E. Image ©2014, DigitalGlobe, NextView License | Analysis AAAS.
Figure 7: Seasonal foliage near Novocherkassk
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In July 2012 (left), trees at this tank depot near Novocherkassk are in full leaf. In the image showing a buildup of tanks at the base (right) the trees are bare, suggesting that the image was indeed taken on 27 March 2014, and not the previous summer.19 Coordinates: 47.52N, 40.16E. Image ©2014, DigitalGlobe, NextView License | Analysis AAAS.

Kuzminka

The third of the sites published by NATO that AAAS examined was located near the town of Kuzminka, some 36 kilometers west of Rostov (Figure 1). In its release, NATO compared imagery of the site taken on 25 October 2013 and 27 March 2014, and concluded that tanks and infantry fighting vehicles associated with a motorized rifle regiment had occupied the area, along with their support and supply facilities. To verify these conclusions, AAAS acquired imagery of the area covering both those dates, as well as 23 March 2014, 30 March 2014, and 5 April 2014. Once again, analysis of the imagery lends credibility to NATO’s conclusions. On 25 October 2013, the area appears as a patchwork of agricultural fields delineated by rows of trees. By 23 March the same fields are crisscrossed by a dense web of heavy vehicle tracks, and a large encampment of tents, trucks, and armored vehicles has appeared in its southwestern corner (Figure 8). The force remains in place through 27 March, 30 March, and 5 April, with no apparent draw-down in its level of readiness; throughout that period, elements of the formation can be seen maneuvering, presumably in exercises.

Figure 8: Activity of combat and logistics vehicles near Kuzminka
 
Between 25 October 2013 and 5 April 2014, fields near Kuzminka become a military exercise area. Coordinates: 47.37N, 39.23E. Image ©2014, DigitalGlobe, NextView License | Analysis AAAS.

IV. Conclusion

Analysis of high-resolution satellite imagery reveals patterns consistent with the involvement of Russian airborne units in the Crimean crisis. This is suggested by the substantial increase in the number of helicopters present at Kacha airbase, along with the clear signs that Ukrainian personnel at the neighboring Belbek airbase were sufficiently concerned about the prospect of an airborne assault to block the runway using their own aircraft. This anxiety may have been justified; observers have noted that Belbek’s runway would be ideal for landing heavy troop transports.20 Likewise, the barricades surrounding the base’s entrances appear to have been a well-advised –though ultimately unsuccessful – defensive measure; Belbek airbase was taken over in a Russian ground assault on 22 March.21 This outcome demonstrates that both of the features observed at Belbek were unambiguous warning signs of future conflict.

Analysis of Russian forces inside Russia reveals that that country’s armed forces are engaged in large-scale military exercises at multiple locations in close proximity to the Ukrainian border. Multi-temporal observations of their encampments reveal units departing their staging areas, engaging in maneuvers, and returning to their encampments. These results substantiate NATO’s assertions of a troop buildup in the border regions. Indeed, in Belgorod, it was possible to watch additional reinforcements arrive over the course of four days from 22 to 26 March. During this same period, Russian state media ran headlines repeating Moscow’s declaration that there was “No troop build-up or undeclared military activity near Ukraine borders.”22 While the Russian government’s acknowledgement of the existence of ongoing military exercises23 may render the statement technically accurate with regard to undeclared military activity, the claim that no build-up is taking place is inconsistent with the observations of this investigation. Finally, biological evidence in the form of seasonal foliage is entirely consistent with the acquisition dates reported by NATO via DigitalGlobe, and the images examined by AAAS and those released by NATO are consistent with one-another in their depiction of the landscape. In light of these observations, the claim that the imagery depicts exercises that took place in the summer of 201324 lacks credibility.

For a PDF version of this case study, click here.


1. This section incorporates background information from a previous AAAS report analyzing the situation in Sevastopol.

2. For a timeline of events see: BBC News; Al-Jazeera.

3. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/20/world/europe/crimea.html?_r=0

4. See note 1.

5. See Note 1.

6. “http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/at-senate-budget-hearing-kerry-verbally-duels-with-critics-of-obama-foreign-policy/2014/04/08/f325a41a-bf4c-11e3-b574-f8748871856a_story.html

7. http://www.aco.nato.int/imagery-reveals-destabilizing-russian-forces-near-ukraine-border-nato-plans-balanced-response-to-reassure-allies.aspx

8. http://rt.com/news/nato-satellite-images-drills-712/

9. http://www.aaas.org/geotech/sevastopol

10. Obtained via globalsecurity.org and other online sources.

11. http://theaviationist.com/2014/02/28/belbek-airport-unknown-troops/

12. http://rt.com/news/self-defense-belbek-crimea-795/

13. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/mi-24.htm

14. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/mi-14.htm

15. http://theaviationist.com/2014/02/28/crimea-russian-choppers/

16. http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/WO1404/S00073/military-activities-of-russia-on-the-border-with-ukraine.htm

17. http://graphics.wsj.com/russian-forces-near-ukraine/

18. See note 7.

19. See note 7.

20. http://theaviationist.com/2014/02/28/belbek-airport-unknown-troops/

21. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/03/22/these-photographs-show-the-dramatic-standoff-at-belbek-airbase-in-crimea-today/

22. http://rt.com/news/russia-troops-limit-border-673/

23. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/22/world/europe/us-voices-doubts-on-russian-troop-movements.html

24. See note 7.