Russia begins massive military exercises in Belarus and Black Sea
Russia and Belarus launched their largest joint military exercises ever on Thursday, a day after six Russian warships arrived in Crimea for naval drills that Ukraine says will paralyze commercial shipping in the Black Sea.
Why it matters: U.S. officials believe that Russia may use the exercises inside Belarus as cover to attack Ukraine from the north. Ukraine's foreign minister slammed the Black Sea maneuvers as "unprecedented" and a tactic of Russia's "hybrid war" designed to blockade Ukraine's southern ports.
What to watch: Russia has said the joint exercises with Belarus, which involve as many as 30,000 troops and sophisticated missile systems, will end on Feb. 20 — but Western officials are skeptical.
- "The number of Russian forces is going up. The warning time for a possible attack is going down," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.
- French President Emmanuel Macron said that during his five-hour meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 8, he secured a commitment that Russia would not escalate — but warships in the Black Sea arrived a day later.
- Meanwhile, Ukraine has launched its own war games near the border with an unspecified number of troops and NATO-provided weapons, including U.S.-made Javelin missiles and Turkish-made drones.
Driving the news: Macron and other European leaders have been engaged in a flurry of diplomacy to de-escalate the crisis this week, as tensions reach perhaps their most dangerous point.
- U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss traveled to Moscow on Thursday, where she was met with an icy reception from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
- Lavrov wondered aloud during their joint press conference why the two diplomats even met, saying the conversation resembled one between "a mute person and a deaf person."
- In Brussels, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered additional British reinforcement for NATO and said the next few days are likely "the biggest security crisis that Europe has faced for decades."
Between the lines: All sides have pointed to the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements on ending the Russia-backed war in eastern Ukraine as the best framework for possible de-escalation.
- Advisers from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France — a grouping known as the Normandy Format — met in Berlin Thursday for a second round of talks seeking to revive Minsk.
- A breakthrough is viewed as highly unlikely.