MASLOVKA, Russia – Deep in a pine forest in southern Russia, military trucks, their silhouettes blurred by camouflage nets, appear through the trees. Soldiers in four-wheel drive vehicles crawl on ridged dirt roads. And in front of a newly set up camp, guards, Kalashnikovs hung over their shoulders and paced up and down.
In recent months, Russia has deployed what analysts call the largest military build-up along the Ukrainian border since the Kiev war against Russia-backed separatists began seven years ago.
It is far from a secret operation: during a trip to southern Russia by a New York Times journalist, evidence of the construction was seen everywhere.
The mobilization triggers alarms in the organization of the North Atlantic Treaty, in the European capitals and in Washington and is increasingly seen as an early foreign policy test for the Biden government, which Moscow has just hit with a new round of sanctions. Russia responded almost immediately, announcing on Friday that it would expel 10 US diplomats.
US sanctions were designed to punish Russia for numerous previous actions, including meddling in the United States elections, “solar winds” hacking government agencies and businesses, various disinformation efforts, and annexing Crimea.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Andrii Taran told European lawmakers on Wednesday that Russia is currently occupying around 110,000 soldiers near the Ukrainian border. In Washington, the director of the CIA told Congress that it was still unclear whether the construction was a show of force or a preparation for something more sinister.
While the goal of the construction remains unclear, military analysts say it should be seen for sure. A show of force is hardly a good show if no one is watching.
“They’re being used in very visible ways,” said Michael Kofman, senior researcher at CNA, an Arlington, Virginia think tank that oversaw military activity. “You’re making it open so we can see it. It is intended. “
In order for the movements not to go unnoticed, the Russian military has issued statements announcing some of them in advance. The high visibility cost Russia every element of surprise and prompted analysts to minimize, but not rule out the possibility of an actual attack.
The construction is more likely intended as a warning to the West not to take Russia for granted. After four years of respect for the Trump administration, President Vladimir V. Putin is now in an uncomfortably exposed position, said Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center in a recent article.
The Kremlin’s relations with Europe are at their lowest level since the Gorbachev era. “At the same time, coordination between US and European policy regarding Russia under Biden has increased significantly,” Trenin wrote.
Putin is known for keeping Russia high on President Biden’s list of foreign policy priorities.
Putin may also have been provoked by the actions of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who in recent months has brought troops close to the border with separatist regions, shut down pro-Russia television channels and charged some separatist leaders with treason.
From this perspective, the massed troops could also serve to pressure Ukraine to postpone its positions in talks in order to settle the war more on Russia’s terms.
Up close, the Russian construction is even more difficult to miss. Tank tracks cross a parking lot in the village. Roadside children gawk as six-wheeled military trucks roll by, raising clouds of dust. Russian and foreign reporters showed up every day to watch the goings-on.
When asked on a mild spring day when they turned the damp black soil of their garden plots over for planting, the residents of villages near the Pogonovo training ground, an epicenter of this construction, seemed happy to be playing with the supposed cloak of secrecy.
Yevdokia Novikova, 86, a retired nurse, said the military activity had sent a message to the West: “There is no point in fighting Russia,” she said of the embassy.
But then, when her eyes narrowed and it was suspected that a foreigner was asking questions about the military vehicles, she also said the activity should not be seen at all. “Danger!” She said. “If you write the wrong words, you could be hit with a stick.”
But this otherwise inconspicuous rural region in the Russian steppe, about 110 miles from the Ukrainian border, unmistakably serves as the hub for the development. Commercially available satellite imagery and images posted on social media have shown hundreds of armored vehicles either driving on the street or parked in the pine forest.
A train depot in the center of the city is used to transport tracked vehicles from railcars to flatbed trucks. This is evident from social media posts that have been confirmed to be authentic by the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of independent Russian military analysts.
Gigantic military trucks are within sight of the streets, which, strangely, have remained open to public transport.
A video posted online and authenticated by the Conflict Intelligence team showed a giant, tracked multiple rocket launcher called TOS, nicknamed Pinocchio for its bulging, nose-like weapon. It chugged on a flatbed truck between summer houses in Maslovka.
Pickup trucks also hauled armored personnel carriers called BMPs, the Russian equivalent of Bradley combat vehicles. Artillery, infantry, special forces, tanks, missiles and naval landing craft have been photographed as they line up towards the Ukrainian border.
Earlier this month, the Russian military issued a press release to announce the relocation of the naval landing vehicle closer to Ukraine in case anyone is curious. The ships sailed along rivers and canals that connected the Caspian Sea with the Black Sea. The ministry published pictures.
Mr Biden has signaled a desire to de-escalate. In conciliatory comments on Thursday, he said the new sanctions were not the strictest that the United States could have imposed. “I chose proportionate,” he said. “The United States does not want to initiate a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia.” He proposed a summit with Putin.
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, has repeatedly stated that Russia has the right to occupy soldiers wherever it wants within its borders. Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu said he had ordered a nationwide military readiness check in response to aggressive moves by NATO.
For the most part, the people at the Pogonovo training ground were in favor of Russia’s military muscle tension.
“If they calmed down, we would calm down too,” said Aleksei, a retired Russian air force mechanic who refused to give his last name out of fear of the authorities, about the Ukrainians.
But, he added, the Russian military often trained nearby, and the spring’s activity wasn’t uncommon. “There is no alarm going off here,” he said with a shrug. “None at all.”
Not all residents were so friendly. A man went to the fence of his yard, scowled and asked me: “Why hasn’t the FSB caught you yet?” referring to Russia’s domestic intelligence service.
As we drove away from the village, military police stopped our car – and told us to follow them directly into the military training zone to speak to a commanding officer.
The road passed clunky green military trucks parked in the forest, some with communication antennas sprouting from their roofs, and to a city of tents, all of which were covered with camouflage netting. “Your presence here is not forbidden,” said the commander, Captain Kirill Smirnov. “It’s also not recommended.”
The United States and its allies are increasingly concerned about the build-up of Russian troops, CIA director William J. Burns warned the Senate on Wednesday. The structure contains enough forces for a possible incursion.
But Mr Burns said US officials were still trying to determine whether the Kremlin was preparing for military action or just sending a signal.