Russia and Belarus plan to launch major joint military exercises on Thursday close to the Ukrainian border, amid intense diplomacy to avert what some western capitals see as Kremlin preparations for a new potential invasion of Ukraine.
As part of a military build-up of more than 100,000 Russian soldiers to the north, south and east of Ukraine, Moscow has sent armoured vehicles, fighter jets and S-400 and Iskander missile systems into Belarus along with what Nato estimates to be 30,000 troops.
The concentration of forces near the Belarus-Ukraine frontier – which is just 150km from Kyiv – has focused the attention of major western intelligence services on whether Russia may plan to use its ally’s territory to launch an attack on the Ukrainian capital.
Ukraine intends to hold its own 10-day drills to run in parallel with the Russia-Belarus exercises, taking place in border areas and including training with anti-tank weapons that Kyiv has received recently from the United States and Britain, and military drones bought from Turkey.
Russia says it is not planning a new invasion, but has also threatened to take “military-technical” steps if the West does not bar Ukraine and other eastern European countries from joining Nato, and the alliance does not withdraw its troops and weapons from the region – demands that the US and other major Nato states have rejected.
Moscow is also demanding that Ukraine implement the Minsk accords on the war in its eastern Donbas region, which Kyiv signed in 2014 and 2015 under huge Russian military pressure, and which critics say would deeply undermine the country’s sovereignty.
Senior government advisers from Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France will meet in Paris to discuss the conflict on Thursday, when British prime minister Boris Johnson will hold talks on the security crisis in Poland and his foreign minister Liz Truss will be in Moscow.
Ms Truss said she would “urge Russia to pursue a diplomatic solution and make clear that another Russian invasion of a sovereign state would bring massive consequences for all involved”.
“Russia should be in no doubt about the strength of our response. We have said many times that any further invasion would incur severe costs, including through a co-ordinated package of sanctions,” she said.
Washington has vowed to inflict “massive” costs on Russia if it launches a new attack on Ukraine, where in 2014 it occupied Crimea and started its proxy war in Donbas.
After meeting German chancellor Olaf Scholz this week, US president Joe Biden said those measures would include ensuring that the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany never became operational.
Mr Scholz hosted talks with French president Emmanuel Macron and Polish president Andrzej Duda on Tuesday evening, after which they jointly urged Russia "to de-escalate the situation at the Ukrainian border and engage in a meaningful dialogue on security on the European continent."
The US is now deploying 1,700 troops to Poland and 1,000 to Romania to bolster the region's security during the current crisis; the soldiers in Poland will prepare to help American citizens who flee to the country in the event of an attack on neighbouring Ukraine, unnamed US officials told Reuters.