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Russia holds a massive military exercise with Belarus, raising concerns in Ukraine

Armored units take part in joint exercises between Russia and Belarus, in this image from a Russian Defense Ministry video. The massive scale of the operation is stoking tensions along the Ukrainian border.
Russian Defense Ministry / Screenshot by NPR
Armored units take part in joint exercises between Russia and Belarus, in this image from a Russian Defense Ministry video. The massive scale of the operation is stoking tensions along the Ukrainian border.

Russia launched what's being called its largest military exercise since the Cold War on Thursday, holding joint maneuvers with Belarus. The White House says the operation is yet another escalation of tensions along the Ukraine border.

The large-scale military exercise will last until Feb. 20. Russia's Defense Ministry said the joint operation in Belarus, which includes warplanes, missile launchers and live-fire exercises, will focus on "suppressing and repelling external aggression during a defensive operation."

The timing and position of the exercise have raised concerns in Ukraine, the U.S. and NATO countries. Analysts have previously pointed to Belarus as one possible route for Russian troops to invade Ukraine.

An analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies last month found that Russia's military could attempt "to outflank Ukrainian defenses around Kiev by approaching through Belarus."

Other potential strategies include attacks on central or southern Ukraine, or hybrid warfare that combines ground operations with destabilizing online attacks.

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"The U.S. and NATO allies have described the deployment of some 30,000 Russian troops as the largest to Belarus since the end of the Cold War, and possibly part of a Russian plan to assault Ukraine's capital Kyiv from the north," NPR's Charles Maynes reports from Moscow.

"Earlier this week, the Kremlin said its forces would eventually return back to home bases in Russia without providing a timeframe," Maynes says.

In response to the exercises, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday that the situation hasn't actually changed that much since 2014, when Russia invaded and illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula.

"The buildup of troops along the borders is psychological pressure from our neighbors," Zelenskyy said, according to Interfax. "We see nothing new in this. As for the risks, there are risks and they have not ended since 2014."

The exercise kicked off after Russia sent warships into the Black Sea near Ukraine's southern coast for a naval exercise, in an operation that quickly sparked concerns that the ships could be used to blockade Ukraine's ports — or even to carry out an amphibious assault.

In response to the Russian military drills around its territory, Ukraine's military will carry out its own exercises.

President Biden's press secretary Jen Psaki said on Wednesday that the White House sees Russia's joint military operation with Belarus "as certainly more of an escalatory and not a de-escalatory action," because of the troops' movements.

In January, Russia said that it doesn't intend to invade Ukraine, despite massing troops and equipment near the border. At the time, Russia had around 100,000 troops in the area. Russia has now positioned around 140,000 troops near the border and in Crimea, according to The Moscow Times.

Putin has long insisted that Russians and Ukrainians are "one people." In a detailed history published last July, Putin argued that the countries are two "parts of what is essentially the same historical and spiritual space."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.