Russia launched a surprise combat readiness check of its military forces deployed in the Far East, amid an ongoing security crisis which threatens an escalation of Russia’s war with Ukraine.
The drills envisage testing the capacity of the country's transportation grid to project military force "by large distances," according to a statement by Russia's Defense Ministry on Jan. 14.
The snap maneuvers will see Russian units in the Eastern Military District (covering east Siberia and the country's far east) placed "on the highest combat readiness" and sent to their deployment areas.
"A number of military formations will be deployed for combat training missions at unknown training grounds, located far away from their home bases," the Russian military said.
"The activities will allow to estimate the Eastern Military District force's readiness to fulfill their appropriate combat missions following their long-distance redeployments in the Russian territory."
Moscow continues to carry out regular military drills and maneuvers as tensions run high in the region, with nearly 100,000 Russian troops concentrated close to Ukraine's border. The massive buildup, accompanied by the Kremlin's warlike rhetoric and aggressive demands towards NATO and the United States triggered serious concerns and fears of a large-scale military action against Ukraine.
The ongoing buildup is expected culminate with up to 175,000 Russian soldiers being concentrated in the region for a military action against Ukraine, which may be launched in early 2022, according to Western and Ukrainian intelligence.
Nonetheless, it is still not known if the decision to further invade Ukraine has been made by the Kremlin.
Despite extensive diplomatic efforts led by U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO, the diplomatic crisis continues. Following a Jan. 12 meeting in Brussels, NATO publicly declined Russia's repeated demands of non-admission to Ukraine and Georgia — which have pursued membership in the alliance after Russia's military aggression against them.
Meanwhile, according to NATO, the Russian buildup shows no signs of ending or slowing down.
On Jan. 12, the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), an open-source investigations group, said it found dozens of photos and videos taken in Russia's Far East and Siberia and posted recently on social media. The materials show scores of Russian military hardware units, including armored vehicles and missile systems, being transported west via automobile highways and railroads.
Judging from geolocation data and military insignia seen in the pictures, the CIT said the formations belong to the 5th, 29th, 35th, 36th combined arms armies, all part of Russia's Eastern Military District. Notably, the 5th Tank Army units, typically based in the city of Ulan Ude, had already been deployed to fight against Ukrainian forces during the Battle of Debaltseve in 2015, according to numerous investigations.
The fact that some of these formations have already been spotted being transported beyond their military districts may mean that they are likely moving not for drills but rather for deployment near the Ukrainian border in Russian-occupied parts of the Donbas, the CIT said.
In early 2022, the Russian military is also expected to run its Grom ("Thunder") exercises, involving all components of Moscow's "nuclear triad," composed of nuclear warhead-carrying strategic air forces, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles.