The decision by Moscow and Minsk to continue holding joint military exercises close to the border with Ukraine shows that Russia could be readying itself to launch a full-blown offensive against its neighboring nation, NATO’s top official has said amid a worsening standoff between the two former Soviet Republics.
Speaking as part of an interview with CBS aired on Sunday, Jens Stoltenberg set out his view on the heightened tensions in Eastern Europe.
“So last week, actually, Russia said that they will step back. Russia is stepping up with more troops and higher and even closer to the Ukrainian border,” he said.
Stoltenberg also gave a grim prediction as a result of Russia and Belarus’ move to prolong the Union Resolve 2022 drills, which were due to end on Sunday. “The fact that this exercise, they said should end today, will now continue … all of this fits into the picture that Russia is preparing for an invasion of Ukraine,” he added.
His remarks come after Minsk’s Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin announced that “due to the increase in military activity near the external borders of the Union State, and aggravation of the situation in Donbass, the presidents of Belarus and Russia have decided to continue the checks of the … response forces.”
The Union State is a supranational body made up of Russia and Belarus, created with the intention of deepening the two nations’ economic and defense ties.
Khrenin also added that its “focus will remain unchanged – it is designed to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders.”
Stoltenberg sounded the alarm earlier in February, claiming that the buildup of Russian forces in Belarus is the largest number stationed in the country since the end of the Cold War.
Western officials have been raising fears for months that Moscow could soon order an invasion of Ukraine, and have pointed to reports of a troop build-up on the two countries’ shared border, as well as joint exercises with Belarus. Last Tuesday, Russia announced that it had begun the process of withdrawing its forces after wrapping up drills in the former Soviet Republic.
The Kremlin, however, has repeatedly denied that it has any aggressive intentions toward its neighbor.