Russia launches war games in disputed Ukraine territories
The defence ministry on Thursday announced a drill including the federal districts of Southern Russia, the Northern Caucasus and the recently-annexed Crimea as well as Russian military bases in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Armenia. The exercises will run until April 10.
This adds to a string of manoeuvres conducted over the past few weeks in Crimea, Armenia, the Russian region of North Ossetia and three other areas in Southern Russia.
While the Russian armed forces regularly hold manoeuvres at their bases in Armenia and in the two disputed breakaway regions from Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — they have in the past shied away from giving them too high a profile.
Foreign military experts in Moscow said the overall level of drill activity since the beginning of the year was comparable to the same period last year. Yet the latest exercises were being viewed as a message. “That every exercise at the moment also carries a signal to the west regarding Russia’s readiness goes without saying,” said a European military official.
In September 2012, when the military conducted an annual exercise covering the Caucasus region, it said bases in Armenia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were not participating and no foreign nationals were taking part “in order to avoid extra tension in the bilateral relations with several neighbours of the Russian Federation.”
But this time, the tone is set by a hardening stand-off between Russia and Nato over Moscow’s role in the war in eastern Ukraine.
Victoria Nuland, US assistant secretary of state, said on Wednesday that Russia had “thousands and thousands” of soldiers in Ukraine. Nato has been strengthening its presence in member states neighbouring Russia, and some members of the alliance are discussing whether to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons to defend itself. The UK is sending personnel to train Ukrainian soldiers.
Several Nato member states and other European countries also complain of increasingly aggressive military posturing by Russia, including repeated incursions by fighter aircraft.
Russia continues to angrily deny any formal involvement of its military in Ukraine and, in turn, has accused Nato of pressuring it. Anatoly Antonov, deputy defence minister, mockingly asked why Ms Nuland had not used even higher figures. “Why doesn’t she say 20,000?” he asked.
Mr Antonov claimed Nato was more active in the vicinity of Russia’s borders than Russia itself. He accused the alliance of using the Ukraine conflict as a pretext for moving closer to Russia’s borders.
The drills also come as Russia is integrating South Ossetia and Abkhazia closer into its security infrastructure through alliance treaties and the establishment of joint forces. Moscow went to war with Georgia in 2008 to support South Ossetia. It subsequently recognised the two breakaway territories as independent states and they have been highly dependent on Russia since.
The authorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia say their motive for the closer security alliance with Russia — which was designed in Moscow — is the desire for protection as Georgia seeks to align itself with Nato more closely.