Friday, March 24, 2023

Russia, Belarus extend large military drills near Ukraine

Russia and Belarus are extending military drills that were due to end on Sunday, the Belarus defence minister said, in a step that further intensifies pressure on Ukraine as Western leaders warn of an imminent Russian invasion.
The decision to extend the drills was taken because of military activity near the borders of Russia and Belarus and an escalation of the situation in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, the Belarusian defence ministry said in a statement.
NATO says Russia has up to 30,000 troops in Belarus and could use them as part of an invasion force to attack Ukraine, which lies to the south of Belarus. Moscow denies any such intention. The Kremlin did not comment on the Belarus drills. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the repeated warnings by the West that Russia was about to invade Ukraine were provocative and could have adverse consequences, without giving details.
Russia and its allies say Ukraine and the West are whipping up tensions by sending NATO reinforcements to eastern Europe.
Belarus Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said the focus of the extended exercises was “to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders.”
Western countries are preparing sanctions they say would be wide-reaching against Russian companies and individuals in case of an invasion. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a BBC interview broadcast on Sunday that such sanctions would “hit very very hard,” and could include restrictions on Russian businesses’ access to the dollar and the pound. (Full Story)
However, he acknowledged such threats may not deter Moscow.
“We have to accept at the moment that (Russian President) Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogically about this and doesn’t see the disaster ahead,” Johnson said. (Full Story)
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the West should impose some of the sanctions now, rather than waiting for an invasion. (Full Story)
“Russia has to be stopped right now. We see how events are unfolding,” Kuleba said.
The focus of tensions in recent days has been on the swathe of eastern Ukraine that Russian-backed rebels seized in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east.
Incidents of shelling across the line dividing government forces and separatists – which were sporadic in the past – increased sharply last week.
On Sunday, a Reuters reporter heard explosions in the centre of Donetsk city in the eastern Donbass region controlled by separatists. Heavy shelling was heard elsewhere in the region.
SMS messages sent to residents of Donetsk urged men to report for military duty.
More than 30,000 people from Donetsk and nearby Luhansk have crossed the Russian border in the past 24 hours, TASS news agency said, quoting authorities in Russia’s Rostov region. The separatists began evacuating residents on Friday saying that Ukraine was planning to attack – which Kyiv denied.
Kyiv’s Western allies are concerned Russia might use the escalation as a pretext for wider conflict.


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