Russia begins major military exercise that West fears is cover for attacking Ukraine

Russia begins major military exercise that West fears is cover for attacking Ukraine

Officials in Moscow and Minsk have said Russian troops will withdraw after the exercises. But U.S. and European security officials are not convinced.

Russian officials, who deny they have plans to attack Ukraine, continue to blame the United States and NATO for driving up tensions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was staging the joint exercises with Belarus to combat “unprecedented security threats … the nature and, perhaps, concentration of which are, unfortunately, much larger and much more dangerous than before.”

The training exercises are the largest Russia has ever conducted in Belarus. They included operations to detect ambush sites for improvised explosive devices and small group tactics, according to Russian news agency Tass, in apparent preparation for urban battles and unconventional warfare against militias and volunteers. Troops also conducted an exercise to destroy command posts with Iskander ballistic missile launchers. The Russian Defense Ministry did not say whether the missile operations took place in Russia or Belarus.

Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, has massed more than 100,000 troops — Kyiv has put the number at as high as 140,000 — near the borders of its smaller neighbor.

Moscow’s recent military maneuverings are nudging some countries that Russian President Vladimir Putin considers part of his country’s sphere of influence further toward the West. Lithuania’s president on Wednesday said Vilnius would request that Washington stations troops in the Baltic country permanently to help boost security.

U.S. and European officials are continuing to push for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, though efforts such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s trips to Moscow and Kyiv this week have produced no breakthrough.

Political advisors from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany will meet in Berlin Thursday for “Normandy format” talks that aim to implement the Minsk agreements, signed after Moscow seized Crimea. The talks have been pushed by Berlin as a way out of the current crisis.

But Moscow and Kyiv are deeply divided on how to progress. “There are differences of opinion,” said German government spokesman Wolfgang Büchner. “In essence, it will be a question of further reducing them.”

Russia’s ambassador to Germany, Sergey Nechayev, reportedly told German media that Berlin and Paris should be “more assertive” in urging Kyiv to accept and implement the terms of the peace accords.

Kyiv’s political leadership has argued that the deal, which is focused on the breakaway parts of eastern Ukraine, should be renegotiated. It is widely regarded by Ukrainians as favorable to Moscow-backed separatists, and Ukrainian officials have said it would trigger internal unrest if fully implemented.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a statement Thursday that the world is becoming “more and more turbulent and tense.”

The situation “requires additional persistent efforts to ensure strategic stability and counteract emerging threats and challenges, first of all, by seeking comprehensive, legally enforceable security guarantees for our country from the United States and its NATO allies,” he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will visit the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday. He is also scheduled to head to Warsaw for meetings with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda, while British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is in Moscow for talks.

Western nations are stepping up their military presence in the region even as they pursue a diplomatic solution. A grim U.S. military and intelligence assessment reported Saturday that a war could cause Ukraine’s government to collapse within days, kill or wound up to 50,000 civilians and displace up to 5 million people.

London, which is playing an outsize role in trying to resolve the crisis, has placed 1,000 troops on standby in the event that a renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine triggers a humanitarian and refugee crisis.

The United States is also moving some troops from Germany to Romania to support NATO’s eastern flank. A Stryker squadron departed Germany Wednesday and will arrive in several days, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

The Biden administration is resisting comparisons to Afghanistan, where U.S. troops last year helped evacuate more than 100,000 people in the chaos after the fall of Kabul. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that the United States, which is advising citizens to leave Ukraine, “does not typically do mass evacuations.”

“The situation in Afghanistan was unique for many reasons, including that it was the end of a 20-year war. We were bringing a war to an end; we were not trying to prevent a war, as we are certainly in this case.”

The Kremlin is demanding a sweeping rewrite of the post-Cold War European security order, including a permanent ban on Ukraine joining NATO and the removal of the bloc’s forces from Eastern Europe. Washington and its allies have ruled out ending NATO’s “open door” policy, though they have offered to negotiate on issues Moscow deems of “secondary” importance.

“What we need to see is real diplomacy, not coercive diplomacy,” Britain’s Johnson said in a statement Thursday. “As an alliance we must draw lines in the snow and be clear there are principles upon which we will not compromise. That includes the security of every NATO ally and the right of every European democracy to aspire to NATO membership.”

“They try to hit us with grenade launchers, shelling, small-arms fire,” said Maxim, a 26-year-old soldier on the front lines in a former industrial zone in Avdiivka. “It isn’t easy conditions, but it’s what we signed up for,” he told The Washington Post, declining to give his last name to protect his family’s privacy.

Pannett reported from Sydney. Steve Hendrix in Avdiivka, Ukraine, Loveday Morris in Berlin and Robyn Dixon in Moscow contributed to this article.

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