Russia and former Soviet ally Belarus have launched the “hot phase” of a 3-month-long military exercise involving 200,000 troops — as Ukraine’s president said all-out war with the northern neighbor was possible.
The Russian Defense Ministry released video of warships and tanks opening fire and fighter jets taking off. It said the troops had practiced repelling an aerial attack and that it tested S-400 air defense systems on Russian-annexed Crimea, Reuters reported.
The live-fire drills are the culmination of the “Zapad-2021” war games that will run until Thursday on Russia’s and Belarus’ western flanks, including areas near NATO and the European Union’s borders.
Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, said the first three days of the “hot phase” exercises, launched Friday, focused on defending against a Western attack, with the remaining four days devoted to a counter-offensive.
Ukraine and NATO members Poland and Lithuania say such large-scale exercises so close to the border risked being provocative.
On Friday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said all-out war with Russia was a possibility, and that he wanted to have a substantive meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, according to Reuters.
Asked at the Yalta European Strategy summit about the possibility of war with Russia, which seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and backs pro-Russian separatists, Zelenskiy said: “I think there can be.”
He added in Ukrainian: “It’s the worst thing that could happen, but unfortunately there is that possibility.”
Tensions between Kyiv and Moscow spiked this year when fighting in eastern Ukraine intensified and Russia massed more troops near the border.
Putin denied that the military drills are directed against any foreign power and said they are sensible given increased NATO activity near Russia’s borders and those of its allies.
The exercises are held every four years, but this year’s drill has been seen as a sign of Russia’s support for Belarus and its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, whom the West has ostracized for cracking down on dissent.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said the active phase of the drills — which include 200,000 troops, 80 aircraft, 290 tanks and 15 ships — would take place at nine sites in Russia and five sites in Belarus.
Forces from Armenia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia also were due to take part.