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In this photo taken from video and released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, Russian S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile systems attend military drills in Sverdlovsk region, Ural, in Russia. Russia and Belarus began their largest joint military drills in years Thursday, watched closely by the U.S. and Europe amid tensions over neighboring Ukraine.

In this photo taken from video and released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, Russian S-400 Triumf surface-to-air missile systems attend military drills in Sverdlovsk region, Ural, in Russia. Russia and Belarus began their largest joint military drills in years Thursday, watched closely by the U.S. and Europe amid tensions over neighboring Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)

(Tribune News Service) — Russia and Belarus began their largest joint military drills in years Thursday, watched closely by the U.S. and Europe amid tensions over neighboring Ukraine.

Thousands of troops backed by tanks, fighter aircraft and advanced S-400 missile-defense systems are involved in the “Allied Resolve 2022” exercises in Belarus that run to Feb. 20. They include drills near the border with Ukraine as well as close to Poland and Lithuania, both NATO members.

“Russia and Belarus are facing unprecedented threats, the nature and concentration of which is now, unfortunately, much greater and far more dangerous than it was before,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call Wednesday. While Russia conducts regular drills with Belarus, these exercises “may be on a larger scale than before” in response to pressure from NATO, he said.

Around 30,000 Russian troops may be in Belarus, making it “the largest military buildup there since the Cold War,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Monday. The alliance has moved to reinforce its eastern flank and remains vigilant because “we have seen Russia use military exercises before as a cover for aggressive actions,” he said.

Russia has repeatedly denied it plans an attack on Ukraine after the U.S. and its NATO allies warned a buildup of close to 130,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border may be preparation for an invasion as soon as this month, including via Belarus from the north. The Kremlin accuses the West of trying to undermine Russia’s security by drawing Ukraine closer to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“They’ve announced that the exercises would last until February 20,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France Inter Thursday. “It will be a very significant test — we will see what happens after these exercises, if there is, or not, a process of de-escalation.”

Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov arrived in Belarus to check preparations for the exercises, the Belta news service reported Wednesday. The Defense Ministry in Moscow hasn’t said how many Russian troops are taking part, though it has said the drills don’t exceed limits under a 2011 agreement on confidence-building measures in Europe. Those specify that exercises involving at least 9,000 troops require notification and that foreign observers must be invited if it's more than 13,000.

Russia is also sending six large landing ships into the Black Sea from the Mediterranean to take part in naval exercises, the Defense Ministry said in a statement Tuesday.

Ukraine’s military will hold its own drills beginning Thursday until Feb. 20 including with Turkish-made Bayraktar drones and anti-tank weapons provided by the U.K., Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Tuesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the U.S. and Europe to exclude Ukraine from future membership of NATO as part of new security guarantees sought by Moscow, a demand they have rejected. French President Emmanuel Macron said during visits to Moscow and Kyiv this week that Putin had agreed not to escalate the standoff over Ukraine, though the Kremlin declined to endorse this claim.

“There are no signs of de-escalation” from Russia, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told reporters Wednesday at an airbase outside the capital, Tallinn, alongside her Belgian counterpart Alexander De Croo. Belgian fighter jets are on rotation in Estonia under NATO’s Baltic air policing mission.

Russia hasn’t massed enough forces near Ukraine for a large-scale operation, though the drills may allow it to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus, said Mikhail Barabanov, a defense expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based think tank. That would be “a response from the Russian side to the buildup of NATO forces in Poland and Lithuania,” he said.

Russia and Belarus say their drills are defensive and aimed at protecting the borders of their Union State from external aggression. Russian forces will return to their bases once the exercises have finished, Peskov said Tuesday.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Minsk last week that his country wants to create new joint training centers including for advanced air-defense systems as part of strengthening security along its border with Ukraine. Lukashenko told officials he’s convinced there’ll be “no hot war” because everyone has become too used to a comfortable life, the state-run Belta news service reported Thursday.

Russia may leave military equipment in Belarus near Ukraine’s border though the drills are likely intended to raise pressure on the West to make concessions rather than a prelude to an invasion, said Yahor Lebiadok, a Minsk-based independent military analyst. “Why attack when everyone’s ready?” he said. “One should attack when nobody’s prepared.”

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