Mariupol, Ukraine – Russia is preparing to begin 10 days of military drills in Belarus in a show of strength that security experts have said is designed to show Ukraine and the West that it is serious about the potential of war.
Russian forces and hardware began arriving in Belarus in mid-January, with about 30,000 combat troops expected to participate in exercises known as “Allied Resolve”.
Two battalions of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and 12 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets have also been positioned.
NATO has called it the biggest deployment to Belarus since the Cold War and it comes as Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops and military hardware in territories around Ukraine’s borders and in annexed Crimea.
The “active phase” of the drills will begin on Thursday and mark the latest in a surge of military activity during a standoff with the West over Ukraine as Western leaders continue diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation.
It is thought that Allied Resolve will include large-scale manoeuvres of airpower and ground troops to simulate an attack from a nearby NATO country.
The US and NATO have warned that the drills could be used as a smokescreen for a real attack or an attempt to take the capital Kyiv, which is 150km south of the Belarusian border; an unannounced Russian military exercise took place just before the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Experts told Al Jazeera that a full-scale invasion or attack during the drills was unlikely, but did not rule out the possibility that a misstep from either side during fraught tensions could result in military action.
“The military presence is aimed at threatening Poland and Lithuania westwards, and Ukraine’s north. The message is that Russia is able to conduct an operation that could seize Kyiv,” said Alexander Khara, a former Ukrainian diplomat and security policy expert at the Centre for Defence Strategies.
“They’re stretching our limited resources, preparing for a possible assault and conducting intelligence gathering to see what capabilities we employ and how we react. It sends the clear message that they have the goal, capability and political will to apply military force in Ukraine if the West don’t agree to [President Vladimir] Putin’s demands.”
Those Russian demands include a ban on Ukraine entering NATO and a limit to the deployment of troops and weapons to the alliance’s eastern flank, both of which NATO and the US have refused.
Military hardware a few kilometres from border
Satellite images collected by Maxar Technologies showed military hardware at locations within about 50km of the Ukrainian border on February 4, as well as military units armed with missiles, multiple rocket launchers and attack aircrafts, the firm said.
On Tuesday, Ukraine announced it will hold its own training at locations around the country to test Turkish-designed Bayraktar drones, as well as Javelins and defensive light anti-tank weapons recently received from the UK.
Russia has also released further plans to stage large-scale tank drills in several southern regions in the coming weeks, while six Russian warships were seen heading through Istanbul’s Bosphorus to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean for naval drills.
Russia has already staged smaller military drills in areas such as Transnistria, the pro-Moscow separatist region of Moldova.
The Belarus drills are unusual in their size and, while exercises are common, they are not usually held in February.
A Kremlin spokesman said on Tuesday that Russia plans to remove its troops from Belarus once the drills are over.
However, February 20 – when the Beijing Olympics also end, with China a key ally to Moscow – has been speculated as a potential date for military escalation.
“I think Russia wants to signal that it’s very serious about the potential for war. And I think it will be preparing for what that could look like,” said Eugene Chausovsky, a geopolitical analyst at Newlines Institute and former Eurasia analyst.
“It wants to send a message to Ukraine, its Western backers and their citizens to extract as many concessions as possible or at least some kind of understanding.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has taken a more stoic stance to the crisis than the US and UK, visited Moscow and Kyiv this week as the diplomatic drive continues to defuse tensions.
After meeting President Putin and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, he said he believes it is “possible to take the negotiations further.”
“Russia is using these military buildups and exercises as a form of leverage to signal to the West that it wants to rewrite the rules of the security order in Europe,” said Chausovsky.
“However, actually taking military action would completely change the situation and would deprive Russia of this leverage.”