Military forces of Russia and its ally Belarus began a 10-day series of exercises on Thursday, Feb. 10. Operating in Belarusian territory near the border of Ukraine, the troops are being overseen by Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s General Staff.
Thirty thousand Russian soldiers are taking part in the exercises, while nearly the entirety of the Belarusian army has been mobilized for the effort.
Kyiv responded to the movements with its own 10-day drill, involving 10,000 Ukranian personnel, as announced by the country’s land forces commander Oleksandr Syrskyi.
“We have specifically moved training of the armed forces towards the most dangerous lines of possible enemy offense,” he said on Feb. 9 in anticipation of the Russia-Belarus exercises.
Ukraine’s president Volodymr Zelenskiy has described the Kremlin’s deployment as “psychological pressure from our neighbors.”
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Russia has increased military activity all across its territory since late last year, with the biggest concentrations being along its border with Ukraine, in the disputed peninsula of Crimea, and in Belarus.
In January, Russia conducted a large-scale naval exercise in the Black Sea involving 150 vessels. Ukraine retains major shipbuilding industries on its coast, though it lost the key port and naval base of Sevastopol when Crimea fell to the Russians in 2014.
Both Ukraine and Belarus used to be a part of the Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991, and the Russian Empire before that. The modern Russian Federation has cited the expansion of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance into its traditional sphere of influence as the main reason for Moscow’s recent maneuvers.
Though it’s unlikely Ukraine will join NATO, the U.S. and its allies have been ramping up other kinds of support for Kyiv. On Feb. 1, Ukraine, Poland, and the UK announced plans for a trilateral defense pact.
Poland and Great Britain are both NATO members.
Belarus has grown closer to Russia in recent years; in early 2020, the Kremlin stood by the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko during major protests against him. Last Nov. 4, Lukashenko signed a number of agreements with Russian President Vladimir Putin for more economic and military integration with Moscow.
Though the Russian armed forces outclass the Ukrainian military in both numbers and technology, the Kremlin would likely face steep challenges in occupying the country of 45 million, as well as dealing with international backlash.