Russian and Belarusian forces are starting a 10-day large-scale military exercise in Belarus on Thursday.
The drills come amid rising tensions over Russia’s buildup of troops near its border with Ukraine.
NATO has described the “Allied Resolve drills” as Russia’s biggest deployment to ex-Soviet state Belarus since the Cold War
What is the scale of the drills?
According to Russia’s Defense inistry, the drills will take place at five military training areas over the course of 10 days, mostly in western and southwestern Belarus, near the country’s borders with Poland and Ukraine.
It is unknown how many troops are taking part in the drills.
Moscow Carnegie Center researcher Artem Schreibman wrote that “there had never been such a large number of Russian military personnel on Belarusian soil in the entire post-Soviet period.” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg estimated the number of troops as being around 30,000.
It is unclear whether nuclear weapons would be part of the drills. According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, shortly before the military exercise started medium-range strategic bombers were on patrol over Belarus.
Wolfgang Richter, a military expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), told DW there was nothing unusual in such patrol flights: “the US does this as well, these are political signals.” He added that such flights are normally carried out without the involvement of nuclear weapons.
“Iskander-M” rockets, which NATO says were brought to Belarus, can also be equipped with nuclear weapons. Richter pointed out that in Russia these weapons have so far been equipped with conventional weapons.
What are Ukrainian and NATO movements?
Ukraine is starting military exercises on Thursday in response to the drills in Belarus.
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said this week Ukrainian training would also run from February 10 to February 20. Ukraine has not reported the number of military personnel and weapons involved in its exercises.
Britain has ordered 1,000 additional to be “put at readiness in the UK to support a humanitarian response in the region should it be needed,” the prime minister’s office said.
In the meantime, the UK is nearly doubling its NATO deployment in Estonia from 900 to 1,750.
Last week, US President Joe Biden approved the deployment of additional forces in eastern Europe. Under the plan, the US will send about 2,000 troops to Poland and Germany, and 1,000 will move from Germany to Romania.
What are the reactions to the drills in Belarus?
The US described the exercises as “escalatory.”
“As we look at the preparation for these military exercises, again, we see this as certainly more an escalatory and not a de-escalatory action,” said White House spokesperson Jen Psaki.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a statement that “the accumulation of forces at the border is psychological pressure from our neighbours.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Wednesday that all diplomatic channels must be pursued, but allied forces must be prepared to act if Russia invades Ukraine. “The task is that we ensure security in Europe, and I believe that will be achieved,” he said after talks with his Danish counterpart Mette Frederiksen.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Inter radio that the maneuvers in Belarus were “extremely large.”
“This is a very violent gesture that concerns us,” Le Drian said.
Moscow and Minsk deny that the drills could serve as cover for an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, and Russia has said it has no intention of establishing a permanent deployment in Belarus. Belarus’ General Staff announced that Russian military personnel would leave the republic after the drills, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov that “the troops will return to their bases.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu said that the drills were being held for the “military security of both countries and the fight against terrorism.”
The ongoing diplomatic efforts to solve the Ukraine crisis
Tensions around Russia’s military buildup near Ukraine have launched a flurry of diplomatic activity, with talks among different European countries continuing Thursday.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is set to meet with the leaders of the Baltic countries in Berlin in the evening.
Foreign policy advisers from Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine are also meeting in Berlin to continue “Normandy format” talks, named after the 2015 deal to end major hostilities between Russia and Ukraine.
Elsewhere, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is traveling to Brussels to meet NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg. He will then head to Poland for talks with President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
A week of talks on Ukraine
The week kicked off with French President Emmanuel Macron going to Moscow to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Macron told reporters that he had made proposals of “concrete security guarantees” to Putin, proposals which Putin described as “realistic” and could form a basis for further joint steps.
On Tuesday, Macron traveled to Kyiv to speak with his Ukrainian counterpart Zelenskyy. Upon arriving in Kyiv, Macron told reporters that he had received assurances from Putin that Moscow “won’t be initiating an escalation” in the conflict.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also made a two-day visit to Ukraine. In Kyiv, she vowed solidarity with Ukraine, despite Berlin’s refusal to send weapons to the country. Baerbock then went to the front line in eastern Ukraine to get a firsthand account of the humanitarian and military situation.
Germany’s Olaf Scholz met with US President Biden in Washington on Monday. At a joint press conference, Biden promised there would be no advancement of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Scholz said that “far-reaching measures” had been agreed upon by Germany and its allies.
Roman Goncharenko contributed to this report
sdi/rt (AP, Reuters, AF, dpa)