Vladimir Isachenkov | Associated Press
MOSCOW — Russia is sending an unspecified number of troops from the country’s Far East to Belarus to participate in a major military exercise, officials said Tuesday. This deployment will further bolster Russian military assets near Ukraine amid Western fears of a planned invasion.
As tensions escalated, the White House warned that Russia could attack its neighbor “anywhere” and the UK has supplied Ukraine with a shipment of anti-tank weapons.
Deputy Defense Minister of Russia Alexander Fomin said that joint exercises with Belarus will include working out a joint response to external threats.
Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine from various directions, including from its ally Belarus.
On Tuesday, the United States reiterated its concern, with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki calling the entry of Russian troops into Belarus part of an “extremely dangerous situation.”
“Now we are at a stage where Russia can launch an attack on Ukraine at any moment,” she said.
A series of talks last week between Russia, the US and NATO failed to ease tensions over Ukraine. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday in another attempt to defuse the crisis.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that it had received a shipment of anti-tank weapons from the UK, noting that they would help “strengthen our defenses.” The statement did not say how many weapons were delivered.
Russia has already begun the transfer of troops to participate in military exercises in Belarus. Fomin said that weapons and personnel would need to be fully deployed by February 9 for the Allied Resolve 2022 exercise, which is expected to take place February 10-20.
Fomin did not say how many troops would be involved in the exercises, but he did mention that Russia would deploy a dozen Su-35 fighter jets and several air defense units to Belarus. The deployment will support the roughly 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and other heavy weapons already massed near Ukraine, which the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion.
Russia denies any intention to attack its neighbor, but demands guarantees from the West that NATO will not expand into Ukraine or other post-Soviet countries and will not deploy its troops and weapons there.
Washington and its allies strongly rejected Moscow’s demands during the US-Russian talks in Geneva and the related NATO-Russia meeting in Brussels last week.
Fomin said that the exercise in Belarus, which involves an unspecified number of military personnel from Russia’s Eastern Military District, reflects the need to work out the concentration of the country’s entire military potential in the west.
“A situation may arise when the forces and means of the regional grouping of troops will not be enough to ensure the reliable security of the allied state, and we must be ready to strengthen it,” Fomin said at a meeting with foreign military attaches. “We have reached an agreement with Belarus on the need to use the entire military potential for joint defense.”
Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko has said joint exercises will be held on Belarus’ western border as well as in the country’s south, where it borders Ukraine.
Amid tensions, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday it was accelerating efforts to form reserve battalions that would allow for the rapid deployment of 130,000 recruits to expand the country’s 246,000 armed forces. The battalions of the newly formed Territorial Defense Forces could include reservists aged 18 to 60 years.
The United States and its allies have urged Russia to de-escalate the situation by withdrawing its troops near Ukraine.
“In recent weeks, more than 100,000 Russian troops with tanks and artillery have gathered near Ukraine for no apparent reason, and it’s hard not to perceive this as a threat,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Berbock told reporters on Tuesday after talks in Moscow with her Russian colleague Lavrov.
In response, Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s argument that it can deploy its forces wherever it sees fit on 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 do not threaten anyone, but we hear threats against us,” he added. “We will decide how to respond, depending on what specific steps our partners take.”
Burbock stressed that the West is ready “for a serious dialogue on mutual agreements and steps aimed at ensuring greater security for all in Europe.”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday in Berlin. He said “the main challenge now is to make progress on the political path forward” to prevent a military attack on Ukraine.
“NATO Allies are ready to meet again with Russia, and today I invited Russia and all NATO Allies to participate in a series of meetings in the Russia-NATO Council in the near future to discuss our concerns and also listen to Russia’s concerns.” Stoltenberg said.
He added that NATO “in the near future” will submit its written proposals in response to Russian demands, and “hopefully after that we can start meeting.”
“We need to see what Russia has to say, and this will be a kind of turning point,” the head of NATO said.
Meanwhile, Lavrov reaffirmed that Russia wants a quick Western response to its demands for security guarantees that would prevent NATO expansion into Ukraine and limit its presence in Eastern Europe. He repeated this in a telephone conversation with Blinken, who will visit Ukraine on Wednesday and meet with Lavrov on Friday.
Lavrov also urged Blinken “not to spread rumors about allegedly impending” Russian aggression “,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Speaking on a visit to Ukraine on Tuesday, Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly denounced the Russian troop buildup as unacceptable. She noted Canada’s efforts to help train the Ukrainian military, adding that she is currently reviewing Ukraine’s request for military equipment and will make a “timely decision.”
Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 after overthrowing the Moscow-friendly leader of Ukraine, and also supported a separatist insurgency that seized large areas in eastern Ukraine. Over 14,000 people have been killed there in nearly eight years of fighting.
Aamer Madhani in Washington, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Yuras Karmanov in Kiev, Ukraine contributed to this report.