Russia and Belarus have begun joint military exercises close to the Belarusian border with Ukraine, part of 10 days of drills seen as a significant element in the Kremlin’s menacing posture towards its neighbour.
Up to 30,000 Russian troops, as well as almost all of the Belarusian armed forces, are taking part in the drills, which began on Thursday. They come at a time when Russia has also amassed forces along its own border with Ukraine, and in the annexed Crimean peninsula.
Much of the equipment for the drills has travelled thousands of miles across Russia. Russia’s defence ministry said one of its S-400 missile defence systems had been activated in Belarus close to the border with Ukraine.
Although the Kremlin has said the Russian troops will return home after the drills, European leaders are watching warily. Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the Ukrainian president, said: “The accumulation of forces at the border is psychological pressure from our neighbours.”
Ukraine has responded with 10 days of drills of its own. Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian land forces, said about 10,000 troops were involved in Ukraine’s exercises. “We have specifically moved training of the armed forces towards the most dangerous lines of possible enemy offence,” he said on Wednesday.
Ukraine’s defence minister has said the drills will feature Javelin anti-tank missiles, recently provided to Kyiv by the US, and British NLAW anti-tank weapons.
Separately, Russia is preparing for missile tests in the Black Sea next week, manoeuvres that Ukraine says will make shipping impossible in both the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. On Thursday, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said the exercises showed “blatant disregard for the rules and principles of international law”.
As the tension around Ukraine has built up in recent weeks, US and British officials have sometimes sounded more alarmist about the threat of full-blown invasion than their Ukrainian counterparts, who say they believe Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goal is to exhaust Ukraine and provoke social unrest.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, who carried out a diplomatic mission to Moscow and Kyiv this week, said a way forward could be found through implementing the Minsk agreements, a 2015 ceasefire deal.
Representatives of Russia, Ukraine, German and France met in the so-called “Normandy format” in Berlin on Thursday, in an attempt to find common ground on a plan for implementing the Minsk agreements, which foresee a political settlement for the regions of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of Russia-backed forces.
Nevertheless, expectations are low that a real breakthrough is possible, given Moscow appears to want a deal that would give it a say in Ukraine’s foreign policy, which is likely to be a non-starter in Kyiv.