Russia moves more troops westward as Ukraine tensions soar

Moscow: Russia is a sending an unspecified number of troops from the country’s far east to Belarus for major war games, officials said on Wednesday (AEST), a deployment that will further beef up Russian military assets near Ukraine amid Western fears of a planned invasion.

Amid the soaring tensions, the White House warned that Russia could attack its neighbour at “any point,” while the UK delivered a batch of anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.

Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin said the joint drills with Belarus would involve practicing a joint response to external threats.

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea.Credit:AP

Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine from various directions, including from its ally Belarus.

The US again stressed its concern Tuesday, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki describing the Russian forces’ move into Belarus as part of as “extremely dangerous situation.”

“We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point launch an attack in Ukraine,” she said.

A series of talks last week between Russia, the US and NATO failed to quell the tensions over Ukraine. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Friday in another attempt to defuse the crisis.

Russian soldiers leave a Russian military plane during the withdrawal of its troops, at an airport outside Moscow.Credit:AP

Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said on Tuesday it has received a shipment of anti-tank weapons (visible in tweet below) from the UK, noting that they will help “strengthen our defence capability.” The statement didn’t say how many weapons were delivered.

Russia already has started moving troops for the war games in Belarus. Fomin said it would take through February 9 to fully deploy weapons and personnel for the Allied Resolve 2022 drills, which are expected to take place February 10-20.

Fomin didn’t say how many troops will be involved in the drills, but mentioned that Russia will deploy a dozen Su-35 fighter jets and several air defence units to Belarus. The deployment would bolster an estimated 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and other heavy weapons who are already amassed near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion.

Russia has denied an intention to attack its neighbour but demanded guarantees from the West that NATO will not expand to Ukraine or other ex-Soviet nations or place its troops and weapons there.

Washington and its allies firmly rejected Moscow’s demands during Russia-US negotiations in Geneva and a related NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels last week.

Fomin said the drills in Belarus, which involve an unspecified number of troops from Russia’s Eastern Military District, reflect the need to practice concentrating the country’s entire military potential in the west.

“A situation may arise when forces and means of the regional group of forces will be insufficient to ensure reliable security of the union state, and we must be ready to strengthen it,” Fomin said at a meeting with foreign military attaches. “We have reached an understanding with Belarus that it’s necessary to engage the entire military potential for joint defence.”

Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly near Kiev, Ukraine.Credit:AP

Belarus’ authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, said the joint manoeuvres will be conducted on Belarus’ western border and also in the country’s south, where it borders Ukraine.

Amid the tensions, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said it was speeding up efforts to form reserve battalions that would allow for the rapid deployment of 130,000 recruits to expand the country’s 246,000-strong military. The battalions from the newly formed Territorial Defence Forces could include reservists from aged 18 to 60.

The United States and its allies have urged Russia to deescalate the situation by calling back the troops amassed near Ukraine.

“In recent weeks, more than 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and guns have gathered near Ukraine without an understandable reason, and it’s hard not to understand that as a threat,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told reporters on Tuesday after talks in Moscow with her Russian counterpart, Lavrov.

A Ukrainian soldier, uses a small hand-held periscope to view the positions of Russian-backed troops from a small bunker.Credit:Getty

Lavrov responded by restating Moscow’s argument that it’s free to deploy its forces wherever it considers it necessary on its territory.

“We can’t accept demands about our armed forces on our own territory,” Lavrov said, adding that “troops’ training is something that every country does”.

“We aren’t threatening anyone, but we are hearing threats to us,” he added. “We will decide how to react depending on what specific steps our partners will take.”

Speaking on a visit Tuesday to Ukraine, Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly denounced the Russian troop buildup as unacceptable.

She noted Canada’s efforts to help train Ukraine’s military

Asked about the prospect of sending military hardware to Ukraine, she said: “We’ve heard loud and clear the demands on the part of the Ukrainian government. Many of the officials here have reiterated this demand. We know that it is important to play our part in the context, and therefore we are looking at options and will take a decision in a timely manner.”

Canada, with a sizeable and politically influential population of Ukrainian descent, has taken a strong line with Russia since its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

“We are united in our support to Ukraine and of course any incursion into Ukraine will result in serious consequences including very severe, coordinated sanctions on the part of allies.”

Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 after the ouster of Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly leader and also threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency that took over large sections in eastern Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in nearly eight years of fighting there.

Germany signalled on Wednesday that it could halt the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia if Moscow invades Ukraine, and Western nations rallied behind Kyiv over a Russian troop buildup that has stoked fears of war.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock warned that Moscow would suffer if it does attack its neighbour, and Chancellor Olaf Scholz signalled that Berlin’s response might include stopping the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing gas to Germany.

Asked about the pipeline after meeting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Scholz said it was “clear that there will be a high price to pay and that everything will have to be discussed should there be a military intervention in Ukraine”.

Reuters

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