Russian troops in Belarus did not return to their home bases on Sunday as scheduled, instead continuing military exercises near the Ukrainian border and heightening fears that Russia could soon launch a three-pronged attack on Ukraine.
The 10-day exercises involving some 30,000 Russian troops, as well as Belarusian forces, began on Feb. 10, and their scheduled conclusion was one of the most closely watched signals of whether Russian President Vladimir Putin would choose to escalate or ease the months-old crisis around Ukraine. No end date was given for the extended drills.
The continuing presence of Russian troops in Belarus leaves open the worst-case scenario of Russia attacking Ukraine from three directions, with troops in Belarus able to push toward the capital of Kyiv from the north. U.S. officials have estimated that Russia now has between 170,000 and 190,000 soldiers in position around Ukraine. Most are massed along Ukraine’s eastern border, while a large number are also concentrated to the south, in the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.
Belarusian Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said Mr. Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko had decided to continue the joint drills because of the “increasing military activity on external borders” of Russia and Belarus, as well as “the worsening situation in Donbas,” a region in southeastern Ukraine.
“There is one conclusion – that it strongly smells of gunpowder in Europe,” Mr. Khrenin said.
On Saturday, the Russian and Belarusian leaders together oversaw the start of drills to test the readiness of Russia’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, which is the largest in the world.
Russia says it has no plans to attack Ukraine. But the Kremlin has demanded guarantees that its neighbour will never be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – guarantees that both the U.S. and the 30-country NATO alliance have said they will not give.
French President Emmanuel Macron called Mr. Putin on Sunday in what the Élysée Palace described as a “last-ditch effort to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine.” Afterward, the Kremlin said Mr. Putin had told the French leader that the U.S. and NATO needed to respond to Russia’s demands “in a concrete and substantive manner.” Moscow says the eastward expansion of NATO in the three decades since the end of the Cold War is a threat to its security.
Mr. Putin believes Ukraine has been under de facto Western control since a 2014 revolution that overthrew a pro-Moscow president. Mr. Putin said last week that he believed the Ukrainian military was committing “genocide” in the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas region, which is part of Ukraine, but which has been under the control of a Moscow-backed militia for the past eight years.
Fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian militants in Donbas has killed more than 14,000 people since 2014. The United Nations monitoring mission for Ukraine says that while both sides have committed human-rights violations, there is no evidence to support Mr. Putin’s contention of genocide.
Since Mr. Putin’s remarks, however, there have been a series of explosions and other alleged attacks in the separatist-controlled areas, leading to concerns that the Kremlin may be fabricating a provocation to be used as justification for a preplanned invasion of Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden said on Friday that he believes Mr. Putin has already made the decision to attack.
After a visit to the Donbas front line on Saturday, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission that monitors ceasefire violations had been weakened after Canada, the U.S. and Britain ordered their nationals to leave earlier this month as concerns rose about a possible Russian invasion.
Ms. Vereshchuk said unbiased reports on what was happening in eastern Ukraine were now more important than ever and called for Ottawa, Washington and London to “review” their decision to withdraw from the OSCE mission.
“We need to have a straight record of these situations. We need to make sure that every single incident is properly documented,” she told The Globe and Mail after visiting a kindergarten in the front-line town of Stanytsia Luhanska that was hit by a shell last week, injuring three staff members.
Canada and several other Western governments have also temporarily closed their embassies in Kyiv and moved staff to the city of Lviv, near Ukraine’s border with Poland. Canada has also withdrawn the 260-soldier Operation Unifier that had been training Ukraine’s military for the past seven years, and Ottawa has advised all Canadian citizens to leave Ukraine “now.”
Russia and Belarus, which are close military allies, say the tension in Eastern Europe has been caused by NATO, which has deployed additional troops to alliance members Poland, Romania and the Baltic states in response to the Russian military buildup.
Andrei Sannikov, a Belarusian dissident who in 2010 ran for president against Mr. Lukashenko in elections widely viewed as rigged, said the joint military drills in Belarus were a threat not only to Ukraine, but also to the sovereignty of his country.
Their extension almost certainly means that Russian troops will be in Belarus during the country’s Feb. 27 referendum on constitutional changes that would allow Mr. Lukashenko, who came to power in 1994, to remain president until 2035.
“The referendum will be held under the presence of foreign troops, under the threat of foreign troops being used against the civilian population,” Mr. Sannikov said.
“Russia now controls Belarus completely. You can see how Belarus is being used as a springboard … that is threatening not only Ukraine, but also Europe.”
Ukraine says Russian-backed separatists are to blame after shelling hit a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska and that videos of fleeing civilians made in separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk are manufactured.
The Globe and Mail
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