Russian forces deploy in Belarus to tighten Ukraine’s encirclement
Russia has begun a live-firing exercise in Belarus, sparking further fears of an invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.
Nato said Russia’s deployment of missiles and tanks created a “dangerous moment” for Ukraine and the rest of Europe.
The exercise is due to run until February 20. It follows a Russian military buildup around Ukraine that the US estimates to include 130,000 personnel.
Russia’s window for a potential invasion is narrowing with the frozen ground due to melt this month, creating impenetrable mud for tank tracks, as the Nazi armed forces experienced in the Second World War.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “the accumulation of forces at the border is psychological pressure from our neighbours”. France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called the war drills “a very violent gesture”.
Russia this week sent six warships through Turkey’s Bosphorus for naval exercises in the Black Sea and the adjoining Sea of Azov.
Russia has restricted Ukrainian access to the Black Sea since it seized Crimea in 2014.
Moscow is preparing for missile tests in the Black Sea next week, which Ukraine says will make shipping impossible. Ukraine’s foreign ministry said the naval exercises showed a “blatant disregard for the rules and principles of international law”.
The Kremlin has previously used large-scale distractions to perform other operations, like during the invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014. Russia still disputes that it had any control over the invasion forces. It also used the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as a distraction while it seized South Ossetia from Georgia.
The Ukrainian government says it believes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prime goal is to exhaust Ukraine and destabilise Ukrainian society. The presence of a functioning, pro-western democracy in a country that Putin regards as within his sphere of influence sets an unpleasant challenge to his authoritarian rule, Kyiv says.
Nato members have been considerably more alarmist about Russia’s actions. Britain’s beleaguered government appears especially vocal, possibly in an attempt to distract media scrutiny from Boris Johnson’s domestic crises.
Peace talks appear to be at a stalemate as Russia appears to want a deal that would give it a say in Ukrainian foreign policy, which will be rejected by Ukraine.
Washington estimated that around 30,000 personnel were being deployed in Belarus from across Russia along with almost all of the Belarusian armed forces. Russia has dominated Belarus since its last presidential election and the subsequent western sanctions
Russia’s defence ministry said the Belarus drills were about “suppressing and repelling external aggression”.
The ministry said one of its S-400 missile defence systems had been deployed in Belarus close to the Ukrainian border.
Russia says its troops will return home after the exercise.
Russian S-400 missile defence systems on the move. Picture credit: YouTube