Amid an ongoing international crisis, Russia’s military began several days of war games with Belarus on Thursday — further stoking fears over a possible invasion of Ukraine.
The military exercises have long been planned, but they come at a time of heightened concern in the West about Moscow’s troop movements, particularly as they relate to Ukraine. Russia has steadily built up more than 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine.
Belarus, which also shares a border with Ukraine, is hosting about 30,000 Russian troops for the mock military games, called Union Resolve 2022. The deployment is Russia’s largest to Belarus since the Cold War.
“The Union Resolve 2022 joint exercise was launched at training ranges of the Republic of Belarus on Feb. 10 as part of the second stage of the check of the Union State’s rapid response forces,” Moscow’s defense ministry said, according to Interfax.
“The objective of the exercise is to practice alerting and repelling external aggression via a defensive operation, as well as combating terrorism and defending the interests of the Union State.”
Belarus ruler Alexander Lukashenko has said that the drills are intended to prepare Russian and Belarusian troops against a possible military confrontation in Europe, pointing to NATO troops in the Baltics and Poland.
“Our country has to respond to these challenges,” Viktor Gulevich, Belarus’ chief of the general staff of the armed forces, said according to Belta. “In accordance with the decision taken by the presidents of Belarus and Russia, a comprehensive readiness test of the Union State’s border protection response forces is underway.”
Russia has repeatedly denied that it’s planning an incursion into Ukraine, but the concerns are based on Moscow’s recent history — including its annexation of Crimea in 2014 — and its firm opposition to Ukraine potentially becoming a NATO state.
Last week, U.S. military officials said that Russia could be looking for a pretext to invade Ukraine, such as staging an attack. Others have voiced concern that the war games with Belarus could also be part of this strategy. During the 1980s, Moscow feared that the United States might also use a military exercise as a ruse to launch a nuclear strike against Russia.
The drills in Belarus are scheduled to run through Feb. 20.