Russia and Belarus extend military drills; West worries invasion is imminent

Polina Devitt and Polina Nikolskaya, Reuters

Posted at Feb 20 2022 10:55 PM | Updated as of Feb 21 2022 12:25 AM

People, who were evacuated from separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine, gather near buses as they arrive at a railway station to leave the city of Taganrog in the Rostov region, Russia February 20, 2022. REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov
People, who were evacuated from separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine, gather near buses as they arrive at a railway station to leave the city of Taganrog in the Rostov region, Russia February 20, 2022. Sergey Pivovarov, Reuters

(UPDATE) Russia will extend military drills in Belarus that were due to end on Sunday, the Belarusian defense ministry announced, in a step U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said made him more worried about an imminent invasion of Ukraine.

The defense ministry said the decision was taken because of military activity near the borders of Russia and Belarus as well as the situation in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region.

Incidents of shelling across the line dividing Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in that region - which were sporadic in the past - increased sharply last week and continued on Sunday.

Speaking to CNN, Blinken said that while all signs suggested Russia was on the brink of invading, the United States and its allies would use every diplomatic opportunity to dissuade the Kremlin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, discussed the need to step up the search for diplomatic solutions to the escalating crisis in eastern Ukraine in a phone call on Sunday, the Kremlin said in a statement.

Belarus did not say how long Russian troops in Belarus - estimated by NATO to number 30,000 - might now remain in the country, which borders Ukraine to the north. Belarus Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said the focus of the extended exercises was "to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders".

The Kremlin did not comment on the Belarus drills. Russia previously said the troops would return to permanent garrisons once the drills were over.

NATO says Russia could use the troops as part of an invasion force to attack Ukraine. Moscow denies any such intention.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president's chief of staff, told Reuters the extension of the Belarus exercises underlined that official promises from Moscow should not be taken as binding.

Russia and its allies say the West is whipping up tensions by sending NATO reinforcements to eastern Europe.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the repeated warnings by the West that Russia was about to invade were provocative and could have adverse consequences, without giving details.

SANCTIONS

Western countries are preparing sanctions they say would be wide-reaching against Russian companies and individuals in case of an invasion.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a BBC interview broadcast on Sunday that such sanctions could include restrictions on Russian businesses' access to the dollar and the pound. However, he acknowledged such threats may not deter Moscow, saying Putin may be "thinking illogically." 

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the West should impose some of the sanctions now, rather than waiting for an invasion. 

Blinken said, however, that sanctions were a deterrent that should not be unleashed before an attack.

The focus of tensions in recent days has been on the swathe of eastern Ukraine that Russian-backed rebels seized in 2014, the same year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the east.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called on Sunday for an immediate ceasefire in the eastern part of the country. 

On Sunday, a Reuters reporter heard explosions in the center of Donetsk city in the eastern Donbass region controlled by separatists. Heavy shelling was heard elsewhere in the region.

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

More than 30,000 people from Donetsk and nearby Luhansk have crossed the Russian border in the past 24 hours, TASS news agency said, quoting authorities in Russia's Rostov region. The separatists began evacuating residents on Friday saying that Ukraine was planning to attack - which Kyiv denied.

Kyiv's Western allies are concerned Russia might use the escalation as a pretext for wider conflict.

Local military forces in one of the separatist areas, Luhansk, said on Sunday that two civilians had been killed and five buildings damaged in shelling by the Ukraine military. Russia's Investigative Committee will investigate the case, the RIA news agency quoted it as saying.

Two Ukrainian soldiers were reported killed and four wounded on Saturday. 

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

Ukraine's foreign minister Kuleba said Ukraine was not planning or carrying out any offensive operations.

TROOP BUILD-UP

The renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine follows a build-up over several weeks of Russian troops to the north, east and south of the country. The West estimates 150,000 or more Russian troops are currently near Ukraine's borders.

Russia, which has demanded NATO prevent Ukraine from ever joining the alliance, calls Western warnings it is planning to invade hysterical and dangerous.

However, it has warned of unspecified "military-technical" measures if its demands for NATO pullback from Eastern Europe are not met.

U.S. President Joe Biden was due to convene his top advisers later in the day to discuss the crisis. Biden said on Saturday he believed Russia could launch an attack "at any time," despite Kremlin assurances that some troops were returning to their permanent bases after military exercises.

A Russian diplomat at the U.N. said no one should tell Russia where or when to conduct exercises.

(Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Polina Nikolskaya and Guy Faulconbridge; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Frances Kerry)