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Russia slams U.S. troop deployment, but it's all quiet on Ukraine's eastern front - for now

Ukraine's border guards patrol Russian border
Ukraine's border guards patrol Russian border as they prepare for invasion 02:22

Kyiv, Ukraine — The U.S. has ruled out sending American combat troops to Ukraine as the country braces for a possible Russian invasion that President Joe Biden has warned could come any time. But after requests from Ukraine's own leader to tone down the rhetoric, the White House is no longer talking about an "imminent" threat of Russian troops crossing the border.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin's government again pointed the finger at Washington, accusing Mr. Biden of escalating the situation by announcing plans to send about 3,000 American troops into Eastern Europe.

Biden orders 3,000 troops to Eastern Europe 01:55

"The Americans continue to do this," said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. "We are talking not just about provocative statements that 'war will come soon, everyone will pay a terrible price,' and so on. We are talking about sending American soldiers to European countries near our borders. Obviously, these are not the steps that are aimed at de-escalating tensions, but, on the contrary, these are actions that lead to an increase in this tension."

But it was Russia that first sent tens of thousands of its forces to conduct exercises near Ukraine's borders, and as satellite images released this week show, that buildup continues not only on Russian soil just east of Ukraine, but in Belarus to the north.

An image from video released by Russia's Ministry of Defense on February 2, 2022 shows Russian and Belarusian forces taking part in joint military exercises in Belarus, across Ukraine's northern border.  Russian Defence Ministry/Handout

CBS News' senior foreign correspondent Holly Williams was on the Ukrainian side of that border this week, and for the time being, she found it quiet. Williams and her team saw a snowplow, but no war machines.

But the Ukrainian forces holding the front line — in what for them has already been an active war with Russian-backed separatists for eight years — told Williams that if Russia does attack, they're ready.

The soldiers told CBS News that Russian forces were only about 60 miles away from their section of the border. On the other side, some of the roughly 100,000 Russian troops that Putin has sent from their bases deeper in Russian territory to the border region, and the new satellite images appear to show them closer to battle readiness.

A satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Russian personnel carriers, tanks and other military hardware at a training ground in Yelnya, in western Russia, about 150 miles north of Ukraine's border, on January 19, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

"It certainly has all the image of an army ready to go," Russia expert Justin Bronk, a military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London, told CBS News. "If they chose a maximalist campaign, they could pretty much destroy the Ukrainian army as a viable fighting force."

For over a decade, Russia's military has been on a high-speed modernization drive. It routinely shows off new weaponry in military parades, and has tested it in Syria, where Putin's forces stand accused of war crimes.

A stronger military has allowed Russia to reassert itself as a world power. Now, experts say, Putin is using that power to threaten Ukraine in a bid to force the country away from the U.S. and NATO, and back under Moscow's control.

Putin: U.S. and NATO have "ignored" security demands 01:58

Near the border separating the two countries, Major Mykola Ferin of the State Border Guard Service told Williams that he and his forces have what they need to defend their territory.

The reality, however, according to the U.S., is that a Russian invasion would be horrific, and change the world.

Putin was flying to Beijing on Thursday to attend the Winter Olympics opening ceremony on Friday, and to meet China's leader, Xi Jinping. Support from his ally in China could be crucial for Putin if Russia does invade Ukraine, and is then hit with the severe sanctions promised by the U.S. and its allies in response.

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