Russia started military exercises on Ukraine’s border on Thursday, saying they were a response to NATO’s increased presence in Eastern Europe.
Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu said in Moscow that NATO “war games” in the Baltic states and Poland were “not helping the normalization of the situation” in Ukraine where the central government is battling pro-Russian separatists in the southeast of the country. “We are forced to react to the situation,” he said.
150 American paratroopers arrived in Poland on Wednesday from their base in Italy to conduct joint training exercises. Another 150 are due to be deployed to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania over the coming months. The three former Soviet republics joined NATO in 2004.
Other allies, including Canada and France, have dispatched fighter jets to the region while Belgian, Dutch and Norwegian minehunters sailed for the Baltic Sea on Tuesday.
NATO has also stepped up reconnaissance flights by AWACS early warning aircraft, once designed to counter feared Soviet nuclear missile strikes, over Poland and Romania.
The deployments followed Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimea last month and are designed to reassure former Warsaw Pact states that are now members of NATO of Western nations’ commitment to their security.
The United States criticized the Russian exercises with a Pentagon spokesman saying they were “exactly the opposite of what we have been calling on the Russians to do, which is to deescalate the situation.”
NATO previously estimated some 40,000 Russian troops were positioned on Ukraine’s border. Officials said they were actively concealing their positions and establishing supply lines that could be used in an invasion. Russia claimed the troop movements were part of a military exercise but no exercises took place until this week.
In an interview with Russia’s RT television network, the country’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, alleged that that the United States were “running the show” in Kiev after President Viktor Yanukovich was deposed in February and an interim government initiated a more pro-Western policy.
Lavrov described the crisis in Ukraine as “just one manifestation of the American unwillingness to yield in the geopolitical fight” and warned that if Russian citizens or Russian interests were attacked there, Russia would consider it an attack against itself.
Russia’s parliament gave President Vladimir Putin permission in March to invade Ukraine in order to protect the lives of Russian citizens and their “compatriots.” Although Russia denied it, it later sent troops to the Crimea and occupied the peninsula before its residents voted in a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.