Russia will start nuclear exercises to test its ballistic and cruise missiles on Saturday as western powers continue to warn that the Kremlin is contemplating an imminent invasion of Ukraine.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Friday that its air force, southern military district, strategic missile forces and northern and Black Sea fleets would take part in the drills, which would test its launch crews and personnel as well as its nuclear and conventional weaponry.
The Kremlin said the annual drills — not held in 2020 or 2021 due to the pandemic — were long planned.
“These exercises and ballistic missile test launches are a pretty regular training process. Various countries are informed through various channels beforehand and it’s all clearly regulated, so it doesn’t give anyone cause for questions and concern,” Dmitry Peskov, spokesman of Russian president Vladimir Putin, told reporters.
Putin discussed the tensions around Ukraine, which Russia accuses the west of provoking by supplying Kyiv’s army with weapons, at a security council meeting on Friday ahead of talks with Belarus’s strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko, Peskov said.
Russia has the largest nuclear forces in the world, with just under 4,500 warheads in its stockpile.
The US believes Putin decided to hold the exercises, which normally take place in the fall, this February as a show of strength amid fears of a renewed invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has massed 150,000 troops at the Ukrainian border according to US estimates, including massive military exercises in Belarus that are set to end on Sunday.
Though Putin said on Tuesday that Russia had begun pulling back its forces from the Ukrainian border, western countries have accused Moscow of publishing videos of tanks and artillery supposedly heading back to base as a smokescreen for further troop deployments.
US president Joe Biden warned on Thursday that Russia was on the brink of invading Ukraine within “several days”, saying Washington believes the Kremlin is engaged in “a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in”. But Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov told parliament on Friday that the probability of a major escalation was “low”.
The announcement of nuclear exercises came as Moscow said it would engage in fresh talks with western powers in a bid to resolve the Ukraine crisis.
Peskov said there would be “certain contacts on the working diplomatic level between foreign ministers” with the US next week after Russia’s foreign ministry sent a reply to the state department on Moscow’s draft security proposals on Thursday.
Shortly after the letter was sent, US secretary of state Antony Blinken invited his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to meet in Europe next week to discuss a possible high-level summit that would resolve “mutual security concerns”.
“Let’s see, right now it’s part of the negotiating process. But this idea should keep on going,” Peskov said.
The Russian letter expressed Moscow’s openness to talks on issues such as arms control and deconfliction measures but insisted it would only do so as part of a broader discussion of its core security grievances with Nato.
The foreign ministry complained the US had “not given a constructive response” to its core demands, which included calling on Nato to pledge never to admit Ukraine and to roll back its eastward expansion, and threatened unspecified “measures of a military-technical nature” if they were not met.
Russia also rejected calls to draw down its troops at the Ukrainian border and insisted it had no plans to invade.
Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, expressed regret that Russia was not sending any representatives to the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of politicians, military chiefs and diplomats that kicks off on Friday.
“Precisely in the current, extremely dangerous situation it would have been so important to meet Russian representatives in Munich,” she said in a statement. “It’s a loss that Russia isn’t exploiting this opportunity.”
Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists controlling breakaway eastern regions of the country continued on Friday to accuse each other of shelling each other’s positions and civilian neighbourhoods after a Thursday flare-up in fighting.
Addressing parliament on Friday, Reznikov said 60 ceasefire violations were recorded in the previous 24 hours, including 43 artillery salvos. “It’s most likely that they expected the Ukrainian side to retaliate so that they could blame us for escalating the situation,” the defence minister said, suggesting Russia and their proxies sought to trigger a pretext for further aggression.
“The provocations won’t end. Our goal is to remain cool headed, respond adequately but not to be provoked,” Reznikov added. “We estimate the probability of a large-scale escalation as low.”