Russia says President Vladimir Putin will personally oversee military drills involving “strategic forces” on Saturday, at a time of soaring tensions at the country’s border with Ukraine.
The defence ministry said the exercise will include multiple practice launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. The air force, units of the southern military district, as well as the Northern and Black Sea fleets would be involved in the huge nuclear drills.
Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, during talks with Putin on Friday on Moscow, said he would also take part in overseeing Saturday’s drills.
The war games follow US President Joe Biden’s warning on Thursday that Russia could invade Ukraine within days. Western fears focus on an estimated 150,000 Russian troops – including about 60 percent of Russia’s overall ground forces – concentrated near Ukraine’s borders.
The Kremlin insists it has no plans to invade. But Moscow has demanded that the US and its allies keep Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations out of the NATO military alliance, not deploy weapons in Ukraine and pull back NATO forces from Eastern Europe.
Washington and its allies bluntly rejected the Russian demands, and Moscow threatened to take unspecified “military-technical measures” if the West continued to stonewall.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia was being transparent about Saturday’s exercises, had given notice to all proper channels, and that they “should not cause anyone concern”, the TASS news agency reported.
He said Putin’s role was essential, and the president was likely to take part from a “situation centre”.
Russia holds huge drills of its strategic nuclear forces on an annual basis, but the manoeuvres planned for Saturday pointedly involve the Black Sea Fleet.
The fleet is based on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
“According to the Russians, this is not an escalation, it is something that the country is carrying on, on an annual basis,” Al Jazeera’s Dorsa, reporting from Moscow, said. “Usually these drills are carried out in October, but they have been moved around in the past.”
Meanwhile, shelling in eastern Ukraine has reignited fears of further escalation.
Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east have traded fresh accusations of shelling and other ceasefire violations.