Russia and Belarus extend military exercises amid Ukrainian tensions | Ukraine-Russia crisis

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Russia will extend military exercises in Belarus that were due to end on Sunday, the Belarusian Defense Ministry announced, in a step that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said made him more worried about an impending Russian invasion. from Ukraine.

The Defense Ministry said the decision was made due to military activities near the borders of Russia and Belarus as well as the situation in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.

Sporadic shelling across the line dividing Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in that region increased sharply last week and continued on Sunday.

Speaking to CNN, Blinken said all signs suggested Russia was about to invade. Russia has repeatedly denied such plans.
“Everything we see suggests that this is extremely serious, that we are on the verge of an invasion,” Blinken said, adding that the West was also prepared if Moscow invaded.

“Until tanks actually roll and planes fly, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from getting things done.”

Putin and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, agreed in a phone call on the need for a diplomatic solution to the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the two governments said.

A French presidential adviser said the two men had agreed that an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) meeting, with representatives from Ukraine and Russia, should be held on Monday.

A special session of the OSCE

Poland, the current chair of the OSCE, said earlier that at Ukraine’s request it was convening a special session of the council on Monday, devoted to the prevention of armed conflict.

Belarus has not specified how long Russian troops in Belarus – estimated by NATO at 30,000 – could now remain in the country, located in northern Ukraine.

Alisa, 38, a media relations specialist, takes part in combat training conducted by the Territorial Defense Forces, near Kyiv, Ukraine [Antonio Bronic/Reuters]

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said the aim of the extended drills was “to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations from the bad guys near our common borders”.

The Kremlin has not commented on the drills in Belarus. Macron’s adviser said Putin reiterated that troops would leave Belarus after the drills.

NATO has said Russia could use troops in Belarus as part of an invasion force to attack Ukraine. Moscow denies such an intention.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Europe is one step away from war, which was unimaginable not so long ago,” Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said in a television interview.

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, told Reuters the extension of the drills underscored that official promises from Moscow should not be seen as binding.

Punishments

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said repeated warnings from the West that Russia was about to invade were provocative and could have adverse consequences, which he did not specify.

Russia says the West raised tensions by sending NATO reinforcements to Eastern Europe during the crisis.

Western countries are preparing sanctions that they say would be far-reaching against Russian companies and individuals in the event of an invasion.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a BBC interview that such sanctions could include restrictions on Russian companies’ access to the dollar and the pound. However, he acknowledged that such threats might not deter Moscow.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said it was time for the West to implement at least some of the sanctions it has prepared.

“Russia must be stopped now. We see how events unfold,” Kuleba said.

In recent days, tensions have centered on the part of eastern Ukraine that Russian-backed rebels seized in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea to Ukraine.

More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east.

Zelensky calls for an ‘immediate ceasefire’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday called for an immediate ceasefire in the east of the country. Macron blamed separatists for the resumption of hostilities, while Putin blamed Ukraine, the French presidential adviser said.

Kiev’s Western allies fear Russia is using the escalation as a pretext for a wider conflict.

On Sunday, a Reuters reporter heard explosions in downtown Donetsk, in the separatist-controlled eastern Donbass region. Heavy shelling was heard elsewhere in the area.

A damaged car in the village of Tamarchuk near Marinka, not far from the pro-Russian fighter-controlled city of Donetsk, UkraineA damaged car in the village of Tamarchuk near Marinka, not far from the pro-Russian rebel-controlled city of Donetsk [Stanislav Kozliuk/EPA-EFE]

SMS messages sent to residents of Donetsk urged men to report for military service.

More than 30,000 people from Donetsk and the neighboring city of Luhansk have crossed the Russian border in the past 24 hours, TASS news agency said, citing authorities in Russia’s Rostov region. Separatists began evacuating residents on Friday saying Ukraine planned to attack – something Kyiv denies.

Local military forces in one of the separatist areas, Luhansk, said on Sunday that two civilians were killed and five buildings damaged in shelling by the Ukrainian military. The Russian Investigative Committee will investigate the case, the RIA news agency said.

Two Ukrainian soldiers were reportedly killed and four injured on Saturday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said water services had been disrupted for more than a million people in the area and called on all parties to spare civilian infrastructure.

Elderly men and women, some well past retirement age, prepare to fight on either side of Ukraine’s separatist conflict.

The renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine follows a weeks-long buildup of Russian troops in the north, east and south of the country. The West estimates that 150,000 or more Russian troops are currently near Ukraine’s borders.

Russia has asked NATO to prevent Ukraine from joining the alliance. He warned of unspecified “military-technical” measures if his demands for NATO withdrawal from Eastern Europe are not met.

A Russian diplomat at the UN said no one should tell Russia where and when to carry out exercises.

Tanks and armored vehicles move during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military exercises at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in BelarusTanks and armored vehicles move during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military exercises at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus [Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/AP Photo]
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