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Russia and Ukraine hold military drills, NATO criticizes Russian troop build-up

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Russia and Ukraine held simultaneous military drills on Wednesday as NATO foreign and defence ministers began emergency discussions on a massing of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border, write Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Robin Emmott.

On the rebel frontline in Ukraine

Washington and NATO have been alarmed by the large build-up of Russian troops near Ukraine and in Crimea, the peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and two U.S. warships are due to arrive in the Black Sea this week.

Ahead of the arrival of the U.S. warships, the Russian navy on Wednesday began a drill in the Black Sea that rehearsed firing at surface and air targets. The drill came a day after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Moscow to end its troop build-up.

Russia - which said the US naval move was an unfriendly provocation and warned Washington to stay far away from Crimea and its Black Sea coast - says the build-up is a three-week snap military drill to test combat readiness in response to what it calls threatening behaviour from NATO. It has said the exercise is due to wrap up within two weeks.

In Ukraine, armed forces rehearsed repelling a tank and infantry attack near the border of Russian-annexed Crimea while its defence minister, Andrii Taran, told European parliamentarians in Brussels that Russia was preparing to potentially store nuclear weapons in Crimea.

Taran provided no evidence for his assertion but said Russia was massing 110,000 troops on Ukraine’s border in 56 battalion-sized tactical groups, citing Kyiv’s latest intelligence.

Fighting has increased in recent weeks in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have battled Russian-backed separatists in a seven-year conflict that Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who held talks in Brussels with Stoltenberg ahead of a video conference of all 30 NATO allies, said the alliance would “address Russia’s aggressive actions in and around Ukraine”, without elaborating.

Russia’s relations with the United States slumped to a new post-Cold War low last month after US President Joe Biden said he thought Vladimir Putin was a “killer”.

In a phone call with Putin on Tuesday, Biden proposed holding a summit between the estranged leaders to tackle a raft of issues, including reducing tensions over Ukraine.

The Kremlin on Wednesday said it was too early to talk about such a summit in tangible terms and that holding such a meeting was contingent on Washington’s future behaviour, in what looked like a thinly veiled reference to potential US sanctions.

Russia has regularly accused NATO of destabilising Europe by bolstering its troops in the Baltic countries and Poland - all members of the Atlantic alliance - in the wake of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.

NATO has denied a claim by Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu that the alliance was deploying 40,000 troops and 15,000 pieces of military equipment near Russia’s borders, mainly in the Black Sea and the Baltic regions.

Moscow

NATO vs Russia: Dangerous games

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It seems that the Black Sea has recently become more and more an arena of confrontation between NATO and Russia. Another confirmation of this was the large-scale military exercises Sea Breeze 2021, which were recently completed in the region, which Ukraine hosted, writes Alexi Ivanov, Moscow correspondent.

The Sea Breeze — 2021 exercises are the most representative in the entire history of their holding. They were attended by 32 countries, about 5,000 military personnel, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, 18 groups of ground and sea special forces from Ukraine, as well as NATO member and partner countries, including the United States.

The main venue for the exercises was Ukraine, which, for obvious reasons, considers this event as a military and partly political support for its sovereignty, primarily in view of the loss of Crimea and the military—political impasse in the Donbas. In addition, Kiev hopes that hosting such a large-scale event will contribute to the speedy integration of Ukraine into the Alliance.

A few years ago, the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation was a regular participant in this series of maneuvers. Then they worked out mainly humanitarian tasks, as well as interaction between the fleets of different states.

In recent years, the scenario of the exercises has changed significantly. Russian ships are no longer invited to them, and the development of actions to ensure air and anti — submarine defense and amphibious landings-typical naval combat operations-has come to the fore.

The scenario announced this year includes a large-scale coastal component and simulates a multinational mission to stabilize the situation in Ukraine and confront illegal armed groups supported by a neighboring state, no one particularly hides that Russia is meant by it.

For obvious reasons, the Russian Armed Forces followed these exercises very closely. And as it turned out, not in vain! The sea was patrolled by Russian warships, and Russian fighter jets were constantly in the sky.

As expected in Moscow, the NATO ships made several attempts to arrange provocations. Two warships-HNLMS Evertsen from Dutch Navy and the British HMS Defender tried to violate the territorial waters of Russia near the Crimea, referring to the fact that this is the territory of Ukraine. As you know, the West does not recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. Precisely, under this pretext, these dangerous maneuvers were carried out.

Russia reacted harshly. Under the threat of opening fire, foreign vessels had to leave the territorial waters of Russia. However, neither London nor Amsterdam admitted that this was a provocation.

According to the special representative of the NATO Secretary General for the countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, James Appathurai, the North Atlantic Alliance will remain in the Black Sea region to support its allies and partners.

"NATO has a clear position when it comes to freedom of navigation and the fact that Crimea is Ukraine, not Russia. During the incident with HMS Defender, NATO allies showed firmness in defending these principles, " Appathurai said.

In turn, British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said that British warships "will continue to enter the territorial waters of Ukraine." He called the route followed by the intruder destroyer the shortest international route from Odessa to Georgian Batumi.

"We have every right to freely pass through Ukrainian territorial waters in accordance with international standards. We will continue to do so, " the high-ranking official stressed.

Moscow said that it would not allow such incidents in the future, and if necessary, it is ready to apply the "toughest and most extreme measures" to violators, although such a scenario is presented by Kremlin as "extremely undesirable" for Russia.

Many experts both in Russia and in the West immediately started talking about the potential threat of the 3rd World War, which in fact can flare up because of Ukraine. It is obvious that such forecasts are not beneficial to anyone: neither NATO nor Russia. Nevertheless, a belligerent and resolute attitude remains on both sides, which cannot but cause fear and concern among ordinary people.

Even after the end of Sea Breeze 2021, NATO continues to declare that they will not leave the Black Sea anywhere. This is already confirmed by the sending of new ships to the region.

Nevertheless, the question remains open: is the North Atlantic Alliance ready to take extreme measures against Russia under the pretext of protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, which is still persistently denied admission to NATO?

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Defence

Kremlin says NATO membership for Ukraine would be 'red line'

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The Kremlin said on Thursday (17 June) that Ukrainian membership of NATO would be a "red line" for Moscow and that it was worried by talk that Kyiv may one day be granted a membership action plan, write Anton Zverev and Tom Balmforth, Reuters.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the remarks a day after US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks in Geneva. Peskov said the summit had been positive overall.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Monday (14 June) that he wanted a clear "yes" or "no" from Biden on giving Ukraine a plan to join the NATO. Read more.

Biden said Ukraine needed to root out corruption and to meet other criteria before it could join.

Peskov said Moscow was following the situation closely.

"This is something we are watching very closely and this really is a red line for us - as regards the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO," Peskov told the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

"Of course, this (the question of a membership plan for Ukraine) raises our concerns," he said.

Peskov said that Moscow and Washington agreed at the Geneva summit that they needed to holds talks on arms control as soon as possible.

Biden and Putin agreed at the summit to embark on regular negotiations to try to lay the groundwork for future arms control agreements and risk reduction measures.

Russia's deputy foreign minister said earlier on Thursday (17 June) that Moscow expected those talks with Washington to start within weeks. He made the comments in a newspaper interview that was published on the foreign ministry's website on Thursday.

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China

China urges NATO to stop exaggerating 'China threat theory'

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China's mission to the European Union urged NATO on Tuesday (15 June) to stop exaggerating the "China threat theory" after the group's leaders warned that the country presented "systemic challenges", Reuters.

NATO leaders on Monday had taken a forceful stance towards Beijing in a communique at United States President Joe Biden's first summit with the alliance. Read more.

"China's stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security," NATO leaders had said.

The new U.S. president has urged his fellow NATO leaders to stand up to China's authoritarianism and growing military might, a change of focus for an alliance created to defend Europe from the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The NATO statement "slandered" China's peaceful development, misjudged the international situation, and indicated a "Cold War mentality," China said in a response posted on the mission's website.

China is always committed to peaceful development, it added.

"We will not pose a 'systemic challenge' to anyone, but if anyone wants to pose a 'systemic challenge' to us, we will not remain indifferent."

In Beijing, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, said the United States and Europe had "different interests," and that some European countries "will not tie themselves to the anti-China war chariot of the United States".

G7 nations meeting in Britain over the weekend scolded China over human rights in its Xinjiang region, called for Hong Kong to keep a high degree of autonomy and demanded a full investigation of the origins of the coronavirus in China.

China's embassy in London said it was resolutely opposed to mentions of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which it said distorted the facts and exposed the "sinister intentions of a few countries such as the United States."

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