Russia and Belarus began 10 days of joint military drills Thursday amid ongoing diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis over fears that the Kremlin is planning an incursion into Ukrainian territory.
The military drills, called “Allied Resolve-2022,” began in Belarus and will end February 20, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced Thursday in a statement.
“The purpose of the exercise is to work out the tasks of suppressing and repelling external aggression while conducting a defensive operation, countering terrorism and protecting the interests of the Union State,” the statement said.
Russia is also planning naval exercises that would block off large parts of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov, raising protests from Ukraine that commercial shipping routes would be choked. The Kremlin has denied that shipping routes will be blocked.
Moscow’s deployment into Belarus is believed to be its biggest there since the Cold War, with “an expected 30,000 combat troops, Spetsnaz special operation forces, fighter jets including SU-35, Iskander dual-capable missiles and S-400 air defense systems,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last Thursday.
The United States has also expressed concerns about the buildup of Russian troops in Belarus, a close ally of Russia.
On Thursday, the top US general spoke with his Belarusian counterpart, marking the first time the two have had any official communication. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley tried to “reduce chances of miscalculation” in his call with Belarus Maj. Gen. Viktor Gulevich, according to a readout of the call.
Milley has frequently spoken with NATO allies and European partners over the past few months. On Wednesday, he spoke with Lt. Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the top Ukrainian general. It was the fourth time the two had spoken in about one month.
But even as European leaders have held occasional talks with Russia, including French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to the Kremlin earlier this week, most of the US engagement has been with allies and partners. Milley hasn’t spoken to his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, since late-December.
Russia has repeatedly denied it is planning to attack Ukraine, despite Moscow’s massive troop buildup in the region. The Kremlin is believed to have assembled 70% of the military personnel and weapons on Ukraine’s borders that Russia would need for a full-scale invasion, according to two US officials familiar with Washington’s latest intelligence estimates.
On Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry posted images of six large amphibious landing ships at the port of Sevastopol in Crimea, after they transited into the Black Sea earlier this week.
Russia has declared a wide swath of the Sea of Azov and Black Sea unsafe as it performs missile and artillery fire exercises between February 14 and 19, the Ukrainian Naval Forces Command said in a Thursday statement shared by the Defense Ministry.
“By blocking the recommended sea lanes, the Russian Federation has made it literally impossible to navigate in these areas and allow ships to enter Ukrainian seaports, especially in the Sea of Azov, that is a clear violation of both the spirit and the conditions of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” it said.
The planned exercises would restrict commercial traffic, warned Michael Carpenter, US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, on Twitter.
“We see Russia escalating its brinksmanship by conducting provocative exercises along Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea, as well as in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. This chokes off commercial traffic in both bodies of water.”
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry appealed for international help over the planned exercises off the Black Sea and Sea of Azov.
“We expect a strong response from the partners: when the Russian Federation’s vessels will be not able to entry easily civilized ports, they will see the price for their impudence,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a statement.
“If there is no joint reaction from the world to these attempts of pressure, the Kremlin, and not just the Kremlin, could use such tactics around the globe,” Reznikov said.
The US Navy is increasing the presence of warships in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean amid rising concerns over the Russia-Ukraine crisis, according to a US defense official. Four US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers have deployed in recent days to Europe to support NATO, the official said.
Russia has denied that the exercises would block off shipping traffic. When asked to comment, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Thursday: “All military maneuvers and movements of Russian ships in the water area of the Black Sea are carried out in strict accordance with international regulations of maritime law.”
The day before, Peskov said the military drills have scaled up as both Russia and Belarus face “unprecedented threats” from NATO.
“[The drills] are held regularly,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. “Yes, the scale may be larger than before, but the situation is much more tense now.”
Pressed further on the purpose and political meaning of these exercises, Peskov said both countries feel a growing threat from NATO.
“Yes, we can say so,” Peskov said. “Both Russia and Belarus are facing unprecedented threats, the nature and concentration of which, unfortunately, are now much higher and much more dangerous than before.”
While Russian President Vladimir Putin is not scheduled to attend the drills, Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, arrived in Belarus ahead of the joint exercises, Russian state news agency TASS reported Wednesday.
“During the exercise, measures will be taken to strengthen the protection of the state border to prevent the penetration of armed groups of militants, block the channels for the delivery of weapons and ammunition, search, block, destroy illegal armed formations and sabotage and reconnaissance groups of a mock enemy,” the Russian Ministry of Defense statement said.
The drills are taking place around Belarus, including “Domanovsky, Gozhsky, Obuz-Lesnovsky, Brestsky, Osipovichsky training grounds,” while the “airfields of Baranovichi, Luninets, Lida and Machulishchi are also involved,” it wrote.
Satellite images, taken Saturday, by US-based technology company Maxar showed camps being established close to the Belarusian border with Ukraine, hundreds of miles from where the exercises are taking place.
The exercises begin as Western nations look for diplomatic avenues to ease the crisis.
US President Joe Biden is expected to speak Friday with European and NATO leaders about Russia’s buildup of troops near Ukraine, according to a person familiar with the plans.
Biden spoke Wednesday with Emmanuel Macron about the French President’s diplomatic efforts in Moscow – after which the Kremlin poured cold water on reports that the two leaders had agreed to de-escalate the tense standoff on Ukraine’s border.
Press secretary Jen Psaki said she expected Biden “will speak with a number of other European counterparts as the week proceeds.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in an interview Thursday that a further round of talks between the countries in the so-called Normandy Format would be a “good sign.”
The Normandy Format is a four-way conversation between representatives from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France that has been trying to broker peace in eastern Ukraine since 2014.
Talk has turned to the Minsk Agreement, which was hammered out during talks in 2015 but never fully implemented, as a possible way out of the current crisis.
Advisers from all four countries are due to meet Thursday in Berlin to discuss tensions around Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson met NATO’s Stoltenberg in Brussels on Thursday, where the UK Prime Minister “set out his plan to bolster UK military commitments to NATO” by sending warships to Eastern Europe and increase the number of British fighter jets stationed in southeast Europe, “to provide reassurance and support to allies in the region,” according to Downing Street.
“Today I have agreed with the Secretary General a package of support to strengthen further our collective security, sending troops, planes and ships to defend NATO from north to south,” Johnson said during a news conference.
Johnson later traveled to Poland where he met Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. The leaders “agreed that European security was vital for wider global stability and called on Russia to de-escalate tensions on the Ukrainian border,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss met in Moscow with her counterpart Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who gave a gloomy assessment of their talks.
Lavrov called it a “a dialogue of the deaf,” saying at a joint press conference Russia was considering withdrawing non-essential diplomatic personnel from Ukraine.
“We are listening but we can’t hear each other,” he added. “Our most detailed explanations fell on unprepared ground.”
Truss in turn urged Russia to take a diplomatic route to avoid war over Ukraine. “There is no doubt that the stationing of over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border is directly put in place to threaten Ukraine,” she said, noting that Russian authorities have also attempted to undermine the sovereignty of Ukraine through cyberattacks and other activities.
“No one is undermining Russia’s security. That is simply not true,” Truss added. “And it is perfectly proper for sovereign nations such as Ukraine to defend themselves and to seek defensive alliances.”
CNN’s Olga Voitovych and Tim Lister reported from Kyiv. Oren Liebermann, Kevin Liptak, Barbara Starr, Lauren Kent, Uliana Pavlova, Joseph Ataman and Camille Knight reported from Washington, London, Moscow and Paris.