Last week three tanks appeared on the roadways of Ukraine, but no one quite knew where they came from. Ukraine’s beleaguered government in Kiev claimed they were Russian. American diplomats agreed but Moscow fervently denied that they gave Ukrainian separatists three main tanks. Now NATO has weighed in, releasing a set of satellite images seemingly confirming that the tanks came from Russian territory.
The images show an area near Rostov-on-Don where Russian forces had staged prior to a recent withdrawal. The area is about 55 miles from the Ukrainian border by road. The far left image, taken May 30, shows a portion of Russia’s military buildup along the Ukrainian border. The image does not include any main battle tanks. The middle image, taken June 6, shows those forces departing as part of a purported effort to de-escalate the crisis. Although the bulk of the Russian forces present in the first image have departed, eight main battle tanks have since arrived. They are highlighted at the bottom of the panel. By June 11, the number of tanks has grown to 10: Three remain at the bottom of the panel; seven are highlighted just off the image (more on the latter seven in a moment). (Click on the image for a larger view.)
The next image takes the third panel above and offers a detailed look at four sections. The four on the right are in training areas, according to NATO. The top left box shows the tanks in the parking area. Immediately below , three tanks are allegedly loaded onto heavy-equipment transporters that NATO says are “the primary method of moving Main Battle Tanks over road networks.”
So what do these images actually show? According to NATO, the placement of three tanks on transporters is key, suggesting their “imminent movement by road.” The photograph showing the three tanks aboard transporters was taken on June 11. A day later the Ukrainian government claimed three tanks crossed from Russia into eastern Ukraine.
Shortly thereafter, three tanks were spotted moving across eastern Ukrainian roadways. Video footage of the tanks was posted on YouTube, which I wrote about earlier. In screenshots from those videos, NATO identifies the tanks as T-64s (contrary to my claim that they were likely T-72s):
Lastly, NATO points out that the tanks spotted in eastern Ukraine do not bear the markings of Ukrainian T-64s. Some observers speculated that the tanks were stolen from Ukrainian armed forces. Although the alliance does not say so explicitly, pointing out the tanks’ markings is likely an effort to rebut that claim.
The NATO images are no smoking gun but compelling circumstantial evidence of Russian involvement; circumstantial being the key word.