Russian troops will stay indefinitely, Belarus says, as fears grow of Ukraine invasion | Ukraine

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Russian troops sent to Belarus for military exercises will remain in the country indefinitely, the Belarusian Defense Ministry has said, in a move that will further stoke concerns that Moscow foresees an imminent invasion of Ukraine.

Belarusian Defense Minister General Viktor Khrenin said the Russian soldiers would stay after the large-scale joint drills end on Sunday. He said the move was necessary due to the “escalating situation” in Donbass, eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin had promised to withdraw its forces from Belarus once the 10-day exercise, which began on February 10, is over. It deployed what NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called the largest concentration of troops and modern weapons in Belarus since the Cold War.

They include 30,000 troops, elite Spetsnaz units, Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 missile defense systems. Russian forces are stationed near the Belarusian border and within striking distance of Kiev, 260 km. The United States and the United Kingdom have warned that Moscow plans to attack the Ukrainian capital.

Belarusian Defense Minister General Viktor Khrenin. Photograph: Sergey Shelega/AP

“Due to increased military activity near the external borders of the Union State and the escalation of the situation in the Donbass, the Presidents of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation have decided to continue the joint inspection of the reaction forces,” the statement from the Belarusian Defense Ministry said.

As recently as Wednesday, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said “no” Russian soldiers would remain in the country after the massive joint drills – a promise echoed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Sunday reiterated his assertion that Russia had no intention of launching a military offensive. “We urge you to ask yourself the question: what is the point of Russia attacking anyone? Peskov told Russia-1 state television.

Peskov added that Russia had “never attacked anyone in its history”. But he warned that “any spark, unforeseen incident or minor planned provocation” in the Donbass region could lead to what he called “irreparable consequences”.

The troop announcement follows what the Ukrainian government says is a coordinated spike in violence in the east of the country, where Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatists clash on a 421 km front line. Since Thursday, the Ukrainian positions have been under intense bombardment.

The Ukrainian Joint Forces Command said that as of 6 p.m. local time on Sunday, 57 artillery strikes had been launched against 13 Ukrainian-held villages and towns. He blamed the “provocative bombings” on the Russian armed forces. Two Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since Saturday and five wounded, he added.

Separatists from the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) claimed they were under Ukrainian attack. On Sunday, they said two civilians were killed near the village of Pionerskoye. “Unfortunately, as a result of the attack by Kiev militants, two civilians died and five residential buildings were destroyed,” the LPR said.

Ukraine’s operational command dismissed the report as “absolutely false” and said troops had been ordered to refrain from “active action”. “We realize that the Russians are now looking for any excuse to invade,” he said, adding that he was closing several crossings with rebel territory because of hostile fire.

Russian state media said more than 30,000 people from Donetsk and Luhansk entered Russia in the past 24 hours. Separatists began evacuating residents on Friday saying Ukraine planned to attack – a claim Kyiv denies.

The Biden administration and Boris Johnson, among others, have said they believe Russia was behind a series of recent “false flag” events designed to give Moscow a pretext to invade. They include a car bomb on Friday outside the separatist administration building in Donetsk, an “attack” on a water plant and a “shell” that landed across the border in Russia’s Rostov region.

The situation in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities remained calm on Sunday. Protesters took to the streets of Odessa, a Black Sea port city, waving blue and yellow Ukrainian flags. They chanted slogans such as “Glory to Ukraine” and “Putin is an asshole”.

Meanwhile, the Dutch Foreign Ministry said it was moving its embassy from Kiev to the western city of Lviv “for security reasons”.

The United States and the United Kingdom have already moved their missions to Lviv, followed by other European countries. The French ambassador to Kiev said on Saturday that he was staying put.

Political analyst Artyom Shraibman said the decision to keep Russian troops in Belarus was expected. He described Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as “completely dependent” on what Putin wants. “Lukashenko is forced to dance to Putin’s tune,” he said.

He added: “Lukashenko won’t be happy to be used, but he hopes Belarus will get something back from Russia. Potentially a new credit or arms deal. The Belarusian leader no longer has any real allies.

“It shows that Lukashenko is very vulnerable right now, he has to play Putin’s biggest games.”

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