Russian war games in Belarus designed to ‘send Ukraine a message’ Ukraine-Russia crisis News


Mariupol, Ukraine – Russia is preparing to begin 10 days of military drills in Belarus in a show of strength that security experts have said is designed to show Ukraine and the West that it is serious about the potential of war.

Russian forces and hardware began arriving in Belarus in mid-January, with about 30,000 combat troops expected to participate in exercises known as “Allied Resolve”.

Two battalions of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and 12 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets have also been positioned.

NATO has called it the biggest deployment to Belarus since the Cold War and it comes as Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops and military hardware in territories around Ukraine’s borders and in annexed Crimea.

The “active phase” of the drills will begin on Thursday and mark the latest in a surge of military activity during a standoff with the West over Ukraine as Western leaders continue diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation.

It is thought that Allied Resolve will include large-scale maneuvers of airpower and ground troops to simulate an attack from a nearby NATO country.

The US and NATO have warned that the drills could be used as a smokescreen for a real attack or an attempt to take the capital Kyiv, which is 150km south of the Belarusian border; an unannounced Russian military exercise took place just before the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

In this photo taken from video and released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Saturday, February 5, 2022, a pair of Tu-22M3 bombers of the Russian air force taxi before takeoff at an air base in Russia.  Two Tu-22M3 long-range bombers of the Russian air force performed a patrol mission over Belarus on Saturday amid the tensions over Ukraine.  (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)In this photo taken from video and released by the Russian defense ministry, a pair of Tu-22M3 bombers of the Russian air force taxi before takeoff at an air base in Russia [Russian defence ministry/AP]

Experts told Al Jazeera that a full-scale invasion or attack during the drills was unlikely, but did not rule out the possibility that a misstep from either side during fraught tensions could result in military action.

“The military presence is aimed at threatening Poland and Lithuania westwards, and Ukraine’s north. The message is that Russia is able to conduct an operation that could seize Kyiv, ”said Alexander Khara, a former Ukrainian diplomat and security policy expert at the Center for Defense Strategies.

“They’re stretching our limited resources, preparing for a possible assault and conducting intelligence gathering to see what capabilities we employ and how we react. It sends the clear message that they have the goal, capability and political will to apply military force in Ukraine if the West does not agree to [President Vladimir] Putin’s demands. “

Those Russian demands include a ban on Ukraine joining NATO and a limit to the deployment of troops and weapons to the alliance’s eastern flank, both of which NATO and the US have refused.

Military hardware a few kilometers from border

Satellite images collected by Maxar Technologies showed military hardware at locations within about 50km of the Ukrainian border on February 4, as well as military units armed with missiles, multiple rocket launchers and attack aircrafts, the firm said.

On Tuesday, Ukraine announced it will hold its own training at locations around the country to test Turkish-designed Bayraktar drones, as well as Javelins and defensive light anti-tank weapons recently received from the UK.

A satellite image shows a troop housing area and a vehicle park in Rechitsa, Belarus, February 4, 2022, picture taken by Maxar Technologies / Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.  NO RESALES.  NO ARCHIVES.  CREDIT MANDATORS.  DO NOT OBSCURE LOGOA satellite image shows a troop housing area and a vehicle park in Rechitsa, Belarus, February 4, 2022 [Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters]

Russia has also released further plans to stage large-scale tank drills in several southern regions in the coming weeks, while six Russian warships were seen heading through Istanbul’s Bosphorus to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean for naval drills.

Russia has already staged smaller military drills in areas such as Transnistria, the pro-Moscow separatist region of Moldova.

The Belarus drills are unusual in their size and, while exercises are common, they are not usually held in February.

A Kremlin spokesman said on Tuesday that Russia plans to remove its troops from Belarus once the drills are over.

However, February 20 – when the Beijing Olympics also end, with China a key ally to Moscow – has been speculated as a potential date for military escalation.

“I think Russia wants to signal that it’s very serious about the potential for war. And I think it will be preparing for what could look like, ”said Eugene Chausovsky, a geopolitical analyst at the Newlines Institute and former Eurasia analyst.

“It wants to send a message to Ukraine, its Western backers and their citizens to extract as many concessions as possible or at least some kind of understanding.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has taken a more stoic stance to the crisis than the US and UK, visited Moscow and Kyiv this week as the diplomatic drive continues to defuse tensions.

After meeting President Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, he said he believed it was “possible to take further negotiations.”

“Russia is using these military buildups and exercises as a form of leverage to signal to the West that it wants to rewrite the rules of the security order in Europe,” Chausovsky said.

“However, actually taking military action would completely change the situation and would deprive Russia of this leverage.”

This handout photograph released on January 18, 2022 by the Belarus defense ministry shows a Russian troop train transporting military vehicles arriving for drills in Belarus.  - Belarus said on January 18, 2022, that Russian troops had fled arriving in the country for military drills announced against the backdrop of tensions between the West and Russia over neighboring Ukraine.  (Photo by Handout / MINISTRY OF DEFENSE REPUBLIC OF BELARUS / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / Belarus' Defense Ministry " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSThis handout photograph released on January 18, 2022 by the Belarus defense ministry shows a Russian troop train transporting military vehicles arriving for drills in Belarus [Belarus defence ministry handout/AFP]





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