Russia and Belarus are extending military drills that were due to end on Sunday, the Belarus Defence Minister said, in a step that further intensifies pressure on Ukraine as Western leaders warn of an imminent Russian invasion.
The decision to extend the drills was taken because of military activity near the borders of Russia and Belarus and an escalation of the situation in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, the Belarusian defence ministry said in a statement.
NATO says Russia has up to 30,000 troops in Belarus and could use them as part of an invasion force to attack Ukraine, which lies to the south of Belarus. Moscow denies any such intention.
The Kremlin did not comment on the Belarus drills.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the repeated warnings by the West that Russia was about to invade Ukraine were provocative and could have adverse consequences, without giving details.
Russia and its allies say Ukraine and the West are whipping up tensions by sending NATO reinforcements to eastern Europe.
Belarus Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said the focus of the extended exercises was “to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders.”
Western countries are preparing sanctions they say would be wide-reaching against Russian firms and individuals in case invasion.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a BBC interview broadcast on Sunday that such sanctions would “hit very very hard,” and could include restrictions on Russian businesses’ access to the dollar and the pound.
However, he acknowledged such threats may not deter Moscow. “We have to accept at the moment that (Russian President) Vladimir Putin is possibly thinking illogically about this and doesn’t see the disaster ahead,” Mr. Johnson said.
In eastern Ukraine, local military forces in one of the separatist areas, Luhansk, said on Sunday that two civilians had been killed and five buildings were damaged in shelling by the Ukraine military. Russia’s Investigative Committee will investigate the case, the RIA news agency quoted it as saying.
Two Ukrainian soldiers were reported killed and four wounded on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the need to step up the search for diplomatic solutions to the escalating crisis on Sunday, the Kremlin said.
In a separate call earlier on Sunday, Mr. Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy discussed possible ways to secure immediate de-escalation.