There are signs Russia is taking key equipment from occupied Crimea and redeploying it in Ukraine’s southern sector while also fortifying the contested peninsula ahead of an expected Ukrainian spring counteroffensive.
This comes as Ukraine has said talks with Russia on Crimea will take place if the planned counteroffensive succeeds.
“Russian forces may have withdrawn equipment from occupied Crimea for redeployment elsewhere in southern Ukraine out of fear of a Ukrainian counteroffensive,” the US-based Institute for the Study of War has said.
It added that satellite imagery shows “withdrawal of a significant amount of armoured fighting vehicles, tanks, and towed artillery systems from a depot in Medvedivka (20km northeast of Dzhankoy along the M18 highway) between 17 March and 5 April,” but did not specify the destination of the exported munitions.
Satellite images shared by Maxar show Russia has been fortifying Crimea by digging trenches for weeks now around the small town of Medvedivka and bolstering it with an elaborate system spanning several kilometres.
Russian forces have cut up passages in the area to help soldiers get better angles in their bid to have a broader range of fire, reported The Washington Post.
It added that other fortifications in the area include earth dug up for deep ditches to capture tanks and heavy vehicles.
The aerial images show dozens of similar defences built by Russia in the area.
Military analyst Ian Matveev said Russia “apparently understands” that they will have to protect Crimea in the near future.
This comes as a top adviser to president Volodymyr Zelensky has signalled that Ukraine may no longer require the complete return of Crimea as a precondition to peace talks.
The deputy head of Mr Zelensky’s office Andriy Sybiha has said that Ukraine will discuss the future of Crimea with Mr Putin if Ukrainian soldiers touch the peninsula’s borders successfully.
The top official warned that this does not mean that Ukraine will “exclude the way of liberation [of Crimea] by our army.”
This is the first time Mr Zelensky’s officials have spoken about peace talks on Crimea after the former stand-up comedian took office in 2019.
Officials in Kyiv are raising the temperature on discussions around plans to recapture territory occupied by Russia, including Crimea.
Mr Zelensky’s envoy to Crimea, Tamila Tasheva, has said that “Ukraine will choose the way to bring Crimea back, using political and military means,” reported Politico.
The officials said that in order to “minimise Ukrainian military losses, minimise threats to civilians who live in occupied territories, as well as the destruction of civilian infrastructure”, the Ukrainian forces plan to give Russia a choice on their options to leave Crimea and even use military action as a last resort.
“If they don’t agree to leave voluntarily, Ukraine will continue to liberate its land by military means,” the envoy said.
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