Russia kicks off massive Arctic drills amid Ukraine tensions

Russia has launched massive military drills in various parts of the country amid tensions with the West over the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The drills started on Monday in the Arctic region, with Russia’s Northern Fleet deploying 38,000 servicemen, 110 aircraft, 50 surface ships and submarines in the area.

The sweeping maneuvers, which also deploy additional forces from central Russia, are reportedly intended to test the readiness of Russian forces after an order was issued by President Vladimir Putin for a show of strength in the face of a growing military activity by Western countries along Russia’s western frontiers.

The war games come against the backdrop of rows between Russia and the West over a one-year-long conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people. The United States has also announced plans to hold joint drills with forces from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania later this month.

Russia’s defense minister said Monday that the country should further increase the capabilities of its armed forces in response to what he described as “new challenges and military threats.”

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Sergei Shoigu (pictured above) said in an interview with Russian state TV that the drills are aimed at beefing up Russian forces in Arctic Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land archipelagos and to protect the Russian borders on land, in the air and at sea.

Airlift of special operation forces to distant places and efforts to counter the diversions by the hypothetical enemy are among the major exercises conducted in the war games.

The Russian military has also launched other drills elsewhere in the country with around 3,000 soldiers deployed in Sakhalin Island, the Kamchatka Peninsula and other areas in the country’s far east. The southern Siberia also saw the Russian air force involved in exercises while around 500 troops were deployed in Stavropol, the southwestern region of the country, for the purpose of engaging in tactical drills.

On Sunday, President Putin said since the very beginning of the crisis in eastern Ukraine in February 2014, Moscow was ready to bring its nuclear weapons into a state of alert.

On February 12, hopes were revived after leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France agreed on a ceasefire deal in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, which was aimed at ending the conflict. However, sporadic clashes have continued despite the Ukrainian government and pro-Russia forces claiming that they are committed to the truce.

Western governments accuse Russia of having a hand in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Moscow denies the allegation, saying that the Western-backed government in Kiev should stop suppressing the rights of the ethnic Russian population in that part of Ukraine.

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