Russia, Belarus extend drills; move worries West

Published February 21, 2022
Fighter jets fly during the joint military drills of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at a firing range in the Brest Region, Belarus, February 19. — Reuters
Fighter jets fly during the joint military drills of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus at a firing range in the Brest Region, Belarus, February 19. — Reuters

• Blinken says US will use all diplomatic means to avert Russian invasion
• British PM tells BBC proposed sanctions could restrict Moscow’s access to dollar and pound

MOSCOW: Russia will extend military drills in Belarus that were due to end on Sunday, the Belarusian defence ministry announced, in a step US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said made him more worried about an imminent invasion of Ukraine.

The defence ministry said the decision was taken because of military activity near the borders of Russia and Belarus as well as the situation in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.

Incidents of shelling across the line dividing Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists in that region — which were sporadic in the past — increased sharply last week and continued on Sunday.

Speaking to CNN, Mr Blinken said that while all signs suggested Russia was on the brink of invading, the United States and its allies would use every diplomatic opportunity to dissuade the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron discussed the need to step up the search for diplomatic solutions to the ‘escalating crisis’ in eastern Ukraine in a phone call on Sunday, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Belarus did not say how long Russian troops in Belarus — estimated by Nato to number 30,000 — might now remain in the country, which borders Ukraine to the north. 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”.

The Kremlin did not comment on the Belarus drills. Russia previously said the troops would return to permanent garrisons once the drills were over.

Nato says Russia could use the troops as part of an invasion force to attack Ukraine. Moscow denies any such intention.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, said the extension of the Belarus exercises underlined that official promises from Moscow should not be taken as binding.

Russia and its allies say the West is whipping up tensions by sending Nato reinforcements to eastern Europe.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said repeated warnings by the West that Russia was about to invade were provocative and could have adverse consequences.

Wide-ranging sanctions

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 such sanctions could include restrictions on Russian businesses’ access to the dollar and the pound. However, he acknowledged such threats may not deter Moscow, saying Putin may be “thinking illogically”. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the West should impose some of the sanctions now, rather than waiting for an invasion.

Mr Blinken said, however, that sanctions were a deterrent that should not be unleashed before an attack.

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.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Sunday for an immediate ceasefire in the eastern part of the country.

On Sunday, explosions were heard in the centre of Donetsk, a city in the eastern Donbass region controlled by pro-Russia fighters. Heavy shelling was heard elsewhere in the region.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2022

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