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Launch of Russian military drills stokes fears of preparations for attack on Ukraine, as diplomatic sparring continues

A Russian navy vessels sails through the Bosporus en route to the Black Sea past the city of Istanbul on Feb. 9. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)
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KYIV, Ukraine — Russia began 10 days of military exercises in Belarus on Thursday involving tens of thousands of troops, with warships entering the Black Sea for large-scale naval drills that Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said would render international shipping lanes “virtually impossible” to navigate.

The activity got underway as a flurry of high-stakes diplomatic efforts aimed at preventing a Russian invasion of Ukraine appeared to falter.

In Berlin, negotiators representing Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany failed to come to an agreement after nine hours of discussions seeking a resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

At the United Nations in New York, Washington and Beijing sparred, with a top Chinese diplomat accusing the United States of “hyping up the tension.”

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his meeting with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was like “the deaf talking to the blind.”

The smallest of silver linings emerged from remarks Russian President Vladimir Putin gave to reporters late in the day, making it clear he had not yet given up on the diplomatic track and would soon send a written response to de-escalation proposals by NATO and Washington.

“As for further talks with our European, American partners, they are continuing both in an open and behind-closed-door manner,” Putin said.

A detachment of six Russian landing ships arrived at the Sevastopol port in Russia-annexed Crimea, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement, capping a 7,000-nautical-mile journey from the Baltic Sea. The 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 described the maneuvers as “destructive activity to destabilize the security situation” and accused Russia of violating international law by restricting wide swaths of sea to conduct missile and artillery fire training.

Soldiers are on high alert at Ukraine’s northeastern border, near Kharkiv, amid a build-up of Russian troops on the other side. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post, Photo: Serhiy Morgunov/The Washington Post)

“These actions pose another threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in a statement. “By blocking the recommended sea lanes, the Russian Federation has made it literally impossible to navigate in these areas and allow ships to enter Ukrainian seaports, especially in the Sea of Azov.”

‘We need to go’: A burst of gunfire on Ukraine’s front line and echoes of wider risks with Russia

Top Russian military commanders have traveled to Belarus for the maneuvers, which involve 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, which have put Russian troops in striking distance along Ukraine’s southern coastline. Russia denies any plans to invade Ukraine and continues to accuse the United States and NATO of driving up tensions.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the military drills would not affect commercial operations in the Black Sea. He 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 include small-group tactics and operations to detect ambush sites for improvised explosive devices, according to Russia’s Tass news agency, in apparent preparation for urban battles and unconventional warfare against militias and volunteers.

Amid concerns that the exercises could create a dangerous environment as Western militaries deploy troops farther east, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, phoned his Belarusian counterpart Thursday, “to reduce chances of miscalculation and gain perspectives on current European security,” a joint staff spokesperson said in a statement.

What’s happening in the Ukraine-Russia crisis

Moscow’s military deployments are nudging some countries that Putin considers part of Russia’s sphere of influence further toward the West. Lithuania’s president said Wednesday that his Baltic country would ask Washington to station troops there 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 met Thursday in Berlin for “Normandy format” talks that aim to implement the Minsk agreements, signed after Moscow seized Crimea in 2014.

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 news 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; 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,” requiring Russia to seek “comprehensive, legally enforceable security guarantees for our country from the United States and its NATO allies.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels, said the next few days are “probably the most dangerous moment.” A “combination of sanctions and military resolve plus diplomacy is what is in order,” he said, before heading to Warsaw for meetings with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and President Andrzej Duda.

In the first visit to Moscow by a British foreign secretary in four years, Truss warned Russia that invading Ukraine would be “disastrous.” She urged Russia to abandon “Cold War rhetoric” and pursue a path of diplomacy, saying 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.”

At a tense news conference after their talks, Lavrov said “our attempts to explain ourselves have fallen on deaf ears,” according to a translation on ITV News. He departed the event quickly, leaving Truss alone at her podium. Anglo-Russian relations have been frosty for years, hitting a low point after a nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England, in 2018.

Western nations are stepping up their military presence in the region even as they pursue a diplomatic solution.

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.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte said during a visit to Kyiv that Ukraine will receive some Stinger antiaircraft missile launchers “in the near future.” The man-portable launchers are intended to bolster Ukraine’s ability to shoot down helicopters and low-flying aircraft.

The Biden administration 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 effort.

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.”

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) discusses with congressional reporter Rhonda Colvin why Americans should be concerned about Russia’s next moves. (Video: The Washington Post)

“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.”

Dixon reported from Moscow, Hudson from Washington and Pannett from Sydney. Steve Hendrix in Avdiivka, Ukraine, Loveday Morris in Berlin, Karla Adam in London, David L. Stern in Kyiv and Karoun Demirjian from Washington contributed to this report.

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