Analyzing claims of Russian military equipment being moved to border with North Korea
This week, unsubstantiated press and social media reports alleged that Russia was moving military equipment toward its border with North Korea. An article posted by British tabloid Express.co.uk was particularly egregious in its excitement over the military convoy — termed a “mass military mobilization” — in Russia’s Far East:
Origin of the claim
The claims are based on a handful of photographs and videos showing military movements in Russia’s Far East. The footage appears to be genuine, but the timing of the movements does not necessarily indicate any relationship with recent events in North Korea.
One video shows a line of military equipment allegedly in Vladivostok, Russia’s largest city on the Pacific.
A tweet from Already Happened shows a line of equipment moving from Khabarovsk to Vladivostok, with the image originally taken from a traffic monitoring group.
— Already Happened (@M3t4_tr0n) April 16, 2017
In another tweet, Twitter user Already Happened shares a photograph of equipment being moved by rail towards Vladivostok, with a map showing its proximity to North Korea.
— Already Happened (@M3t4_tr0n) April 14, 2017
Most of the social media posts, videos, and press reports source back to a single author at Already-Happened.com and tweets from the same author. The author noted in a blog post that the movements could be due to the upcoming May 9 Victory Day parade, rather than in response to recent events in North Korea. Indeed, this seemed to be a plausible reason for the military convoy.
Victory Day preparations
The annual May 9 Victory Day (Den Pobedy) parade is celebrated in nearly every major Russian city to mark victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War (World War II). Every year in mid- and late April, Russia transports military equipment via highways and rail to major cities for parade ceremonies. For example, in the video below, military equipment is filmed going through Yekaterinburg on April 22, 2016 in preparation for Victory Day celebrations.
This week, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that more than 50 pieces of equipment are expected at the parade in Vladivostok, including: 9K33 OSA (SA-8 Gecko) and S-300 (SA-10 Grumble) surface-to-air missile systems, Bal and Bastion coastal missile systems, Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems, multiple rocket launcher systems (MLRS) Grad systems, and more. Additionally, Russian Deputy Minister of Defense General Dmitry Bulgakov has been inspecting the combat readiness of troops in the Eastern Military District since April 16.
Looking at the night-time video supposedly taken in Vladivostok, the equipment included 9K33 OSA (SA-8 Gecko) anti-aircraft missile systems — one of the pieces of equipment scheduled to take part in the Vladivostok Victory Day parade.
Again, the equipment visible in the rail transport photograph is consistent with the announced equipment that would take part in the military parade for Victory Day.
An increase in Russian military equipment in the country’s Far East is far from inconceivable with heightening tensions between China, North Korea, and the United States, but there are no indications that the recent stories regarding such a mobilization have any credibility. Throughout April and May, be very skeptical about sensationalist stories on movements of Russian military equipment. Regarding these massive military convoys, the most obvious explanation — preparations for annual military parades — is often the correct one, even though it does not lend itself to bombastic headlines, as seen in the Express story warning of impending world war.
However, it is worth keeping an eye on movement of equipment immediately after the May 9 ceremonies in Vladivostok — will the major anti-aircraft and coastal defense systems remain in or near Vladivostok, or return to their bases further from the border with North Korea? We will continue to monitor the situation, and provide any updates as they become available.
For more in-depth analysis from our regional experts follow the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.