By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia is sending troops from the far east of the country to Belarus for major war games, officials said Tuesday, during a deployment further bolstering Russian military assets near Ukraine amid Western fears of an invasion.
Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said the exercises were aimed at practicing a joint response to external threats from the alliance of Russia and Belarus, which have close political, economic and military ties. Fomin did not specify how many troops and weapons were being redeployed for the drills, or give the number of troops that will be involved in the war games.
Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia could launch an attack from various directions, including from the territory of its Belarusian ally.
The deployment would significantly reinforce around 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons amassed near Ukraine in what the West fears could be the prelude to an invasion. Russia has denied plans to attack its former Soviet neighbor, but has demanded guarantees from the West that NATO will not expand into Ukraine or other ex-Soviet countries or place its troops and arms there.
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Washington and its allies firmly rejected Moscow’s demands during last week’s US-Russian talks in Geneva and a related NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels.
Fomin said the exercises, which involve an unknown number of soldiers from Russia’s Eastern Military District which encompasses Eastern Siberia and the Far East, reflect the need to train to focus the country’s full military potential in the western Russia.
“A situation may arise when the forces and means of the regional group of forces will be insufficient to provide reliable security of the union state, and we must be ready to strengthen it,” Fomin told a meeting. with foreign military attaches. “We have reached an agreement with Belarus that it is necessary to engage all military potential for common defense.”
Belarusian authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko said the joint maneuvers will be carried out on the western border of Belarus and also in the south of the country, where it borders Ukraine. Lukashenko has increasingly relied on Kremlin support for Western sanctions in the face of a brutal crackdown on nationwide protests.
The United States and its allies have urged Russia to defuse the situation by calling troops back to their barracks.
“Over the past few weeks, more than 100,000 Russian soldiers with tanks and guns have gathered near Ukraine for no understandable reason, and it’s hard not to understand this as a threat,” the German business minister said. foreigners Annalena Baerbock to journalists after talks in Moscow with her Russian counterpart. Sergei Lavrov.
Lavrov responded by reaffirming Moscow’s argument that it is free to deploy its forces wherever it deems necessary within its territory.
“We cannot accept demands for our armed forces on our own territory,” Lavrov said, adding that “troop training is something every country does.”
“We are not threatening anyone, but we are hearing threats,” he added. “We will decide how to respond based on the specific actions our partners take.”
Baerbock stressed that the West is ready to continue a dialogue with Russia to help defuse tensions.
“We are ready for a serious dialogue on mutual agreements and measures to bring more security to all in Europe,” she said, noting that the security talks last week were a “sensible first step towards such a dialogue.
Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine in 2014 after the ousting of the pro-Moscow Ukrainian leader and has also backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed there in nearly eight years of fighting.
Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.
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