Videos of Russian military exercises near Ukraine border spark panic on social media

·6-min read

A large number of Russian military convoys on the move have been spotted in Crimea and Russian regions bordering Ukraine since late March. The Ukrainian president denounced what he called "provocations" and the Russian ministry of defence finally confirmed that military exercises were ongoing. Videos of these troop movements have caused panic on social media, with some fearing an imminent military offensive.

Artillery guns, trucks and armoured vehicles have been crossing the bridge from Russia to Crimea, a formerly Ukrainian peninsula that was annexed by Moscow in 2014. Several media outlets warned of Russian aggression, after picking up a video showing these troop movements that was posted on the Telegram messaging app on March 29 in a discussion group for people living in Krasnodar (the region bordering Crimea).

This video was published on the Telegram messaging app @krasnodar_kray on March 29. There was no trace of this video appearing online before March 2

Our team was able to verify that the video does indeed show the Crimea bridge, which was built in 2018 over the strait of Kertch to connect the peninsula to the rest of the continent. To verify the location of this video, we compared it with another video posted on social media on May 16, 2018 by people who filmed themselves crossing the Crimea bridge. In both videos, there are railroad tracks running next to the road. The streetlights have the same unique shape and, in both, there are red tags on the guardrail between the two lanes.

In the most recent video, the railroad tracks are located to the left of the conductor. We examined the layout of the tracks on Google Maps and were able to establish that the Russian military convoy was heading towards Crimea.

These deployments were part of a series of military exercises, according to the press service of the southern Russian military region. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said April 1 that these movements posed no threat.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced a “demonstration of force” and “provocations” by Russia. On April 3, Kiev announced that they would team up with the United Kindgom to conduct joint military exercises in the presence of NATO troops this summer.

Authorities in the self-proclaimed autonomous regions the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic said that they were afraid that the Ukrainian military might launch an offensive into their region, Donbass, in April.

According to the New York Times, nearly 4,000 Russian soldiers were recently deployed near the Ukrainian border. These important movements of troops and military material were witnessed, filmed and posted on social media by a number of people.

Military vehicles in the border regions in eastern Ukraine

Crimea wasn’t the only region to see troop movements, other deployments occurred in other regions bordering Ukraine in the following days. Some of the vehicles in the convoys had their license plates covered, as shown in this video posted on Twitter on April 2 and filmed in the region of Rostov:

In the video, you can hear the driver wondering where these military vehicles with covered licence plates are going. This video has not appeared online before this post.

The Russian blog Conflict Intelligence Team discovered that this video was filmed in Rostov-on-Don on the M-4 highway, 90 kilometres from the border with Ukraine. We checked the Google Street View of this location and noticed that the advertisements and the buildings alongside the road were the same as those that appear in the video. The video shows the convoy going north, towards the border with Ukraine.

People also filmed Russian military convoys in the Voronej region, which also borders Ukraine. In this video, posted on TikTok on April 5, a driver was filming a row of trucks transporting armoured vehicles when suddenly he spotted another 50 vehicles and dozens of soldiers gathered next to a railway line.

The first vehicle is transporting a tank equipped with multiple rocket launchers. This post is the first time this video has appeared online.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team identified the location where this video was filmed, near the Maslovka train station in the town of Voronej. The Conflict Intelligence Team blog came to the same conclusion. On Google Street View, you can see the two bus stops that face each other with two blue buildings in the background on one side of the road and pink house on the other. Just after the bend in the road, you can see the empty place where the troops are gathered. The shape and the colour of the car’s license plates, which are entirely visible here, show that they belong to the Russian army.

On the left, you can see a screengrab of the video showing the Russian military convoy on March 29. The image on the right shows a screengrab of a video filmed on the Crimea bridge. © screengrabs of videos posted on Telegram and YouTube.

Helicopters filmed by residents of the Rostov region

Residents of the Rostov region also filmed dozens of military helicopters. This video posted on TikTok on March 30 shows five helicopters flying over an official building :

The caption on the video includes the hashtag #Salsk. This post is the first time this video has been shared online.

It shows the courthouse in Salsk, which is located 300 km from the Ukrainian border. Its beige siding with grey stripes is instantly recognizable, as are the two black lamp posts on either side of the entryway.

Another video was posted to TikTok the next day with the caption "Rostov region, 16 helicopters fly towards Ukraine". Judging from a comment left on another one of his TikTok posts, it seems as if the person who filmed this video also lives in the town of Salsk.

Ten helicopters are visible in this video. This post is the first time this video has appeared online.

Underneath the video, pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian users exchanged hostile comments relating to the conflict.

Tensions escalate in 2021

The Russian military exercises near the Ukrainian border have taken place against a backdrop of rising tensions in the Donbass region. Since January of this year, 21 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed on the frontline between Ukraine and the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. The number of ceasefire violations increased 30 percent between February and March. Paris and Berlin both said they were worried by an increase in ceasefire violations in a press statement posted on April 3.

Russian military analyst Alexandre Golts told the AFP that he believed the recent military exercises were probably meant to influence diplomatic negotiations with the West, which have been stalled for months.

Katharine Quinn-Judge, an analyst who specialises in Ukraine at the International Crisis Group, told FRANCE 24 that these troop movements were likely a warning.

“The Kremlin tends to believe that Ukraine could launch an attack with support from Washington, now or in a few months. It’s basically a demonstration of force”.

More than 13,000 people have died in the war in Ukraine since it started in 2014.