Russia has hit sea and land targets with ballistic and cruise missiles as part of strategic nuclear exercises amid rising tensions with Ukraine.
The annual exercises included launches of Kinzhal and Tsirkon hypersonic missiles, as well as various weapons on Saturday, the Kremlin said in a statement.
President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, watched the exercises on screens from what the Kremlin called a “situation center.”
Moscow-based analysts said the exercises were aimed at sending a message to take Russia’s demands for NATO security guarantees seriously after the alliance’s expansion to Russia’s borders since the collapse of the Soviet Union. in 1991.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia knew the alliance could not meet its demands, which include the withdrawal of NATO forces from former communist states in Eastern Europe that chose to join NATO.
New helicopters and the deployment of a battle group of tanks, armored personnel carriers and support equipment have been deployed to Russia near the Ukraine border, according to US-based Maxar Technologies, which tracks the development of events with satellite images.
The Kremlin also has troops conducting exercises in Belarus, north of Ukraine, which will end on Sunday.
Russia has stationed some 190,000 troops along its borders with Ukraine, raising suspicions that an invasion is imminent.
Western powers have repeatedly warned the Kremlin against any aggression, insisting there will be retaliation if it attacks its former Soviet neighbor.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin commented that he expected Putin to “move back from the edge of the conflict” as Russian forces began to “deploy and move closer” to the border.
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday that mercenaries had arrived in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine to carry out provocations in collaboration with Russia’s special services.
“The purpose of these provocations, of course, will be to accuse Ukraine of further escalation,” the army said in a statement.
Ukraine has accused Russia of planning provocations that could cause civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine to give Moscow a pretext to attack its neighbor.
Russia denies planning to attack Ukraine.
Local authorities in southwestern Russia also reported Saturday that a shell hit a house in a village near the Ukrainian border, damaging its roof but injuring no one, according to the TASS news agency.
Ukraine denied two earlier reports that its shells had landed on Russian territory near the border as fake news, saying Ukrainian government forces were not firing and had no interest in escalating already high tensions.
Austin assured the three Baltic nations on Saturday that they would not be alone if they faced security threats from Russia, though he stopped short of promising a permanent deployment of US troops to the former Soviet republics.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that an invasion of Ukraine seemed to be “underway”, but that “logically” it should still be possible to avoid a war.
Asked if he agreed with the US assessment that the Russian leader had made the decision to attack the capital Kiev, Johnson responded to announcers at the Munich Security Conference: “I think it’s true. that things are moving, but the question is whether he can withdraw everything, and whether the president of Russia can still cancel this operation.
“I think that logically that possibility should still exist and, therefore, I think it is very vital that we have a path of dialogue, of reason.”
Additional information from Reuters