KYIV, Ukraine - Russian forces on Thursday began 10 days of military exercises with Belarus, and warships arrived at a strategic port on the Black Sea, as Western diplomats seek to avert what they fear could be an invasion after preparations cloaked as training.
A detachment of six ships arrived at the Sevastopol port in Crimea, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement, capping a 7,000-nautical-mile journey to begin what officials describe as a naval exercise. The Russian landing ships typically are used for unloading troops, vehicles and materiel onto land. Some took part in Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Ukrainian officials blasted the maneuvers, calling them an “unprecedented” action that makes navigation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov virtually impossible. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry condemned what it described as Russia’s decision to “block” parts of those seas and the Kerch Strait “under the pretext of holding regular naval exercises.”
“In essence, this is a significant and unjustified complication of international shipping, especially trade, which can cause complex economic and social consequences, especially for the ports of Ukraine,” the Foreign Ministry said.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied in a call with reporters that the drills would affect commercial operations.
Top Russian military commanders flew into Belarus on Wednesday for the maneuvers, which involve thousands of troops and sophisticated weapons systems including S-400 surface-to-air missiles, Pantsir air defense systems and Su-35 fighter jets.
Officials in Moscow and Minsk have said Russian troops will withdraw after the exercises. But U.S. and European security officials are not convinced, and with the arrival in Russian-annexed Crimea, the ships put Russian troops in striking distance along Ukraine’s southern coastline.
Russian officials, who deny they have plans to attack Ukraine, continue to accuse the United States and NATO of driving up tensions. Peskov said Russia was staging the joint exercises with Belarus to combat “unprecedented security threats . . . the nature and, perhaps, concentration of which are, unfortunately, much larger and much more dangerous than before.”
The training exercises are the largest Russia has ever conducted in Belarus. They included operations to detect ambush sites for improvised explosive devices and small group tactics, according to Russia’s Tass news agency, in apparent preparation for urban battles and unconventional warfare against militias and volunteers.
Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, has massed more than 100,000 troops - Kyiv has put the number as high as 140,000 - near the borders of its smaller neighbor.
Moscow’s recent military maneuverings are nudging some countries that Russian President Vladimir Putin considers part of Russia’s sphere of influence further toward the West. Lithuania’s president on Wednesday said Vilnius would request that Washington station troops in the Baltic country permanently to help boost security.
U.S. and European officials are continuing to push for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis, though efforts such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s trips to Moscow and Kyiv this week have produced no breakthrough.
Political advisers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany will meet Thursday in Berlin for “Normandy format” talks that aim to implement the Minsk agreements, signed after Moscow seized Crimea. The talks have been pushed by Berlin as a way out of the current crisis.
But Moscow and Kyiv are deeply divided on how to proceed. “There are differences of opinion,” said German government spokesman Wolfgang Büchner. “In essence, it will be a question of further reducing them.”
Russia’s ambassador to Germany, Sergei Nechayev, reportedly told German media that Berlin and Paris should be “more assertive” in urging Kyiv to accept and implement the terms of the peace accords.
Kyiv’s political leadership has argued that the deal, which is focused on the breakaway parts of eastern Ukraine, should be renegotiated. It is widely regarded by Ukrainians as favorable to Moscow-backed separatists, and Ukrainian officials have said it would trigger internal unrest if fully implemented.
Putin said in a statement Thursday that the world is becoming “more and more turbulent and tense.”
The situation “requires additional persistent efforts to ensure strategic stability and counteract emerging threats and challenges, first of all, by seeking comprehensive, legally enforceable security guarantees for our country from the United States and its NATO allies,” he said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will visit NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday. He is also scheduled to head to Warsaw for meetings with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned Russia on Thursday that invading the Ukraine would be “disastrous,” as she urged Russia to pursue a path of diplomacy. “Fundamentally, a war in Ukraine would be disastrous for the Russian and Ukrainian people, and for European security. And, together, NATO has made it clear that any incursion into Ukraine would have massive consequences and carry severe costs,” she said.
Truss was speaking from Moscow, where she was meeting with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. She urged Russia to abandon “Cold War rhetoric” and said the West cannot “ignore the buildup of over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border and the attempts to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.” But, she said, “there is an alternative route, a diplomatic route that avoids conflict and bloodshed.”
Western nations are stepping up their military presence in the region even as they pursue a diplomatic solution. A grim U.S. military and intelligence assessment reported Saturday that a war could cause Ukraine’s government to collapse within days, kill or wound up to 50,000 civilians and displace up to 5 million people.
London, which is playing an outsize role in trying to resolve the crisis, has placed 1,000 troops on standby in the event that a renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine triggers a humanitarian and refugee crisis.
The Biden administration said Wednesday it is readying plans for U.S. military forces to help evacuate Americans once they cross into Poland in the event of a Russian attack. The last American service member to leave Afghanistan in August, Army Maj. Gen. Christopher T. Donahue of the 82nd Airborne Division, is the commander in Poland coordinating the efforts.
The United States is also moving some troops from Germany to Romania to support NATO’s eastern flank. A Stryker squadron departed Germany on Wednesday and will arrive in several days, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
The Biden administration is resisting comparisons to Afghanistan, where U.S. troops last year helped evacuate more than 100,000 people in the chaos after the fall of Kabul. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that the United States, which is advising American citizens to leave Ukraine, “does not typically do mass evacuations.”
“The situation in Afghanistan was unique for many reasons, including that it was the end of a 20-year war. We were bringing a war to an end; we were not trying to prevent a war, as we are certainly in this case.”
The Kremlin is demanding a sweeping rewrite of the post-Cold War European security order, including a permanent ban on Ukraine joining NATO and the removal of the bloc’s forces from Eastern Europe. Washington and its allies have ruled out ending NATO’s “open door” policy, though they have offered to negotiate on issues Moscow deems of “secondary” importance.
“What we need to see is real diplomacy, not coercive diplomacy,” Britain’s Johnson said in a statement Thursday. “As an alliance we must draw lines in the snow and be clear there are principles upon which we will not compromise. That includes the security of every NATO ally and the right of every European democracy to aspire to NATO membership.”
For Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the eight-year battle with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east, war is not a looming geopolitical threat. It’s a daily grind.
“They try to hit us with grenade launchers, shelling, small-arms fire,” said Maxim, a 26-year-old soldier on the front lines in a former industrial zone in Avdiivka. “It isn’t easy conditions, but it’s what we signed up for,” he told The Washington Post, declining to give his last name to protect his family’s privacy.
- - -
Pannett reported from Sydney. The Washington Post’s Steve Hendrix in Avdiivka, Ukraine, Loveday Morris in Berlin, Karla Adam in London and David L. Stern in Kyiv contributed to this report.