Russia moves naval exercise that rattled Ireland

A rare concession amid the escalating tensions surrounding Russia massing about 100,000 soldiers near the border with Ukraine.

The Russian cruiser Marshal Ustinov preparing to take part in exercises in the Barents Sea in Severomorsk
The Russian cruiser Marshal Ustinov prepares for exercises in the Barents Sea in Severomorsk, Russia, last week [Russian Defence Ministry via EPA-EFE]

Russia says it will relocate naval exercises off the coast of Ireland, after Dublin raised concerns, amid a tense dispute with the West over the expansion of the NATO alliance and fears that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine.

The February 3-8 exercises were to be held 240km (150 miles) off southwestern Ireland – in international waters but within Ireland’s exclusive economic zone. Ireland is a member of the 27-nation European Union but not a member of NATO.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney last week objected to the war games, saying: “This isn’t a time to increase military activity and tension in the context of what’s happening with and in Ukraine. The fact that they are choosing to do it on the western borders, if you like, of the EU, off the Irish coast, is something that in our view is simply not welcome.”

Russia’s embassy in Ireland on Saturday posted a letter on Facebook from Ambassador Yuriy Filatov saying the exercises would be relocated outside of the Irish economic zone ”with the aim not to hinder fishing activities”.INTERACTIVE- Where are Russian troops stationed

The decision was a rare concession amid the escalating tensions surrounding Russia’s massing of an estimated 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine, and its demands that NATO promise never to allow Ukraine to join the alliance, stop the deployment of NATO weapons near Russian borders, and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe.

The US and NATO formally rejected those demands last week, although Washington outlined areas where discussions are possible, offering hope there could be a way to avoid war.

‘Provocative political acts’

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no public remarks about the Western response. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said it leaves little chance for reaching an agreement, though he also says Russia does not want war.

US defence chief Lloyd Austin said on Friday that Putin could use any portion of his force to seize Ukrainian cities and “significant territories” or to carry out “coercive acts or provocative political acts” such as the recognition of breakaway territories inside Ukraine.

Two territories in eastern Ukraine have been under the control of Russia-backed rebels since 2014 after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.

A Russian lawmaker is encouraging residents of those parts of Ukraine to join the Russian army, a sign that Moscow is still trying to integrate those territories as much as possible. Viktor Vodolatsky said on Saturday residents in rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine fear assaults by Ukrainian forces and those who hold Russian passports would be welcomed in the Russian military.

Russia has granted passports to more than 500,000 people in the rebel-held territories. Vodolatsky said the recruits would serve in Russia – but that leaves open the option they could join any future invasion force.

A senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration said the US welcomed Lavrov’s comments that Russia does not want war.

“But this needs to be backed up with action. We need to see Russia pulling some of the troops that they have deployed away from the Ukrainian border and taking other de-escalatory steps,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk publicly.

Russia has launched military drills involving motorised infantry and artillery units in southwestern Russia, warplanes in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, and dozens of warships in the Black Sea and the Arctic.

Russian troops are also in Belarus for joint drills, raising Western fears that Moscow could stage an attack on Ukraine from Belarus in the north. The Ukrainian capital is only 75km (46 miles) from the border with Belarus.

Source: News Agencies