Concerns about the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders have prompted Russia and Belarus to begin ten days of joint military training. The combined drills, according to NATO, are Russia’s largest deployment to ex-Soviet Belarus since the Cold War.
The news: The drills are described by the U.S. as an “escalation” of tensions over Ukraine. Despite amassing more than 100,000 troops on the border, Russia has repeatedly denied any ambitions to attack Ukraine.
- However, some Western nations, including the United States, have cautioned that a Russian attack may occur at any time.
- On Thursday, diplomats from across Europe are due to hold discussions aimed at resolving the crisis.
What is going on: In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in the south. Since then, a long-running conflict in eastern Ukraine has erupted, with Russian-backed rebels controlling large swaths of land, where at least 14,000 people were killed.
- Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
- When massive demonstrations erupted in Belarus in 2020, the Kremlin backed Lukashenko, while most Western countries applied sanctions and refused to recognise election results widely perceived to be rigged in the long-time leader’s favour.
- The Normandy quartet – Russia, Ukraine, France, and Germany – will resume discussions on ending the conflict as early as Thursday, according to French President Emmanuel Macron.
- On Wednesday, Macron told reporters that Putin had guaranteed him that Russian soldiers would not escalate the conflict, but Russia denied making such a promise.
- Following two days of intense diplomacy led by Macron, there is considerable speculation that a fresh focus on the so-called Minsk agreements aimed at ending the violence in eastern Ukraine could be used to calm the current crisis. In 2014-2015, Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany approved the agreements.
- On Thursday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will meet with Baltic leaders in Berlin. At a joint press conference with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on Wednesday, he said, “The aim is to secure European security, and I believe that will be achieved.”
- On Thursday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will go to Brussels and Warsaw in support of NATO members.
- The accords, say some diplomats, might provide a path to de-escalation, with France’s ambassador to the United States, Philippe Etienne, tweeting that they should be used to “create a viable political solution.
- What are they saying: The joint drills, according to a Kremlin spokeswoman, are serious since Russia and Belarus are facing “unprecedented dangers”.
- Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s EU ambassador, told the BBC that his country still believes diplomacy may help de-escalate the Ukraine issue.
- After the exercises, he claimed, Russian forces stationed in Belarus would return to their regular locations.
- “As we look at the preparation for these military exercises, we see this as certainly more of an escalatory action than a de-escalatory action,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
- Mr Johnson’s visit is part of a flurry of diplomatic activity, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also scheduled to meet with Russian counterparts in Moscow on Thursday.
- Ms Truss said ahead of her first visit to Russia in four years that she was determined to stand up for freedom and democracy in Ukraine and would urge Moscow to pursue a diplomatic solution.
Moscow has repeatedly blamed the escalation of tensions in Ukraine on “the Anglo-Saxon nations.”