Russia on Thursday is set to begin 10 days of military exercises with its neighbor Belarus as tensions remain high over a large build-up of troops along its border with Ukraine.
Around 30,000 Russian troops are believed to be in Belarus to take part in the exercises, according to NATO, which has said the drills are the biggest Russian deployment there since the Cold War.
The drills, which Russia has said are primarily aimed at practicing ways to repel “external aggression” are widely seen as a show of strength by Russia. The exercises come at a time when 100,000 Russian troops remain located at various points along Russia’s border with Ukraine.
Russia has denied it is planning to invade Ukraine as a global diplomatic standoff continues over the country which is located between Russia and the EU. Moscow has sought legal assurances that its neighbor Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO and has demanded that the military alliance’s eastern European deployments be rolled back.
Those demands have been refused, although Western officials have said there are areas where there could be a compromise, such as arms control, and talks continue between Russia, Europe and the U.S.
What are the drills?
As such, the joint military drills, dubbed the “Allied Resolve 2022” exercises, come at a sensitive time in geopolitical relations.
The drills will run until Feb. 20 and have the expressed aim of testing Belarus and Russia’s preparedness when it comes to “suppressing and repelling external aggression during a defensive operation, as well as countering terrorism and protecting the interests of the Union State,” Russia’s defense ministry says.
The “Union State” refers to a supranational organization consisting of Russia and Belarus and is aimed at deepening ties and integration between the two countries in a number of areas.
It has not been disclosed how many troops are taking part in the exercises, the first phase of which (the “combat readiness” phase) began earlier in January with the “active phase” set to begin Thursday. The exercises will take place on Belarus’ western and southern border, which it shares with Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania and Latvia on the west and north, respectively, and Ukraine to the south.
Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko has openly stated that the drills are aimed at preparing Russian and Belarusian troops against a possible military confrontation originating in Europe, given the stationing of NATO troops in the Baltics and Poland.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO but has been supplied military hardware by some NATO members, such as the U.K. and U.S. with which to defend itself if Russia attacks.
Speaking in mid-January, Belarus’ Lukashenko, an ally of Russia’s President Putin but seen as the underdog in the relationship, said that he and Putin had agreed to hold snap exercises on Belarus’ western and southern borders but that these had been upgraded to “full-scale” drills.
“Today we see the need to hold full-scale exercises in the western and southern regions … to drill a certain plan of action against the following forces: in the west [the Baltic states and Poland] and the south [Ukraine],” Lukashenko said, according to Belarus’ state news agency Belta.
U.S., NATO concerned over drills
The White House said on Wednesday that it sees the military exercises “as certainly more of an escalatory and not a de-escalatory action.”
NATO has also expressed concerns over the exercises, with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg saying earlier in February that “this is the biggest Russian deployment there since the Cold War” with “an expected 30,000 combat troops, special operation forces, fighter jets, including SU-35s, Iskander dual-capable missiles and S-400 air defense systems (anti-aircraft missile systems).
In late January, Stoltenberg said the deployments of troops and military hardware “takes place under the disguise of an exercise, but it integrates very much the Russian forces and the Belarusian forces.”
“These are highly capable, combat-ready troops, and … there is no transparency on these deployments. So of course, this adds to our concerns. It adds to the tensions and it shows that there is no de-escalation. On the contrary, it’s actually more troops, more capabilities in more countries,” he said during a press conference on Jan. 26.
U.S. Department of Defense Spokesman Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton T. Semelroth told CNBC Thursday that there needs to be more transparency over military exercises.
“Generally speaking, we do not have an issue with exercises. That’s a normal function of a military organization. However, all countries need to be transparent and communicate their military exercises via the appropriate international channels to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation. This is even more important now when the situation in the region calls for de-escalation,” he said in an emailed statement.
Russia says it’s facing ‘threats’
Russia has defended the drills, and its deployment of troops along its border with Ukraine, saying it has a right to move its troops wherever it likes on its own territory.
It has also said that the West has widely ignored its security concerns in rebuffing its demands over Ukraine and NATO, and has accused the West of creating “hysteria” over Ukraine.
Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had no plans to attend the drills in Belarus but when asked about the scale of the drills, he said “it is obvious that these are serious joint maneuvers” which were taking place as Russia and Belarus faced more serious “threats” than before.
“Yes, the scope [of the drills] can be larger than before but the situation is far more tense,” he said, according to Russian state news agency TASS.
“Both Russia and Belarus are confronted with unprecedented threats and their nature and, perhaps, concentration are, unfortunately, far more considerable and far more dangerous now than before,” he added.
Ukraine has also said it will also start military drills lasting for 10 days on Thursday, mirroring Russia and Belarus. Ukraine’s defence minister said the country’s armed forces would drill with Bayraktar drones and anti-tank Javelin and NLAW missiles provided by foreign partners, according to Reuters. It has not reported the number of military personnel and weapons involved in the drills.
As the military drills get underway in Belarus today, a flurry of diplomatic meetings is taking place in Russia and Europe.
Officials from France, Ukraine, Russia and Germany (the so-called ‘Normandy Format’) will meet in Berlin while the U.K.’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is due to meet her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Moscow on Thursday, aiming “to make clear that the only way forward is for Russia to cease its aggression and engage in meaningful talks,” the British government said.
At the same time, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is traveling to Brussels and then Warsaw, Poland to call on international partners to demonstrate solidarity with NATO allies.
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is set to meet his counterparts from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to discuss long-term military deployments in case Russian troops do not leave Belarus after the coming drills.
For its part, the Kremlin said on Tuesday that Russian troops will leave Belarus after the exercises but it did not say exactly when.