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Iran Press TV

Russia starts major military drills in Crimean Peninsula as Ukraine tensions mount

Iran Press TV

Thursday, 22 April 2021 2:52 PM

Russia has launched major military exercises in the Crimean Peninsula under the personal supervision of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu near the southern borders of Ukraine amid exacerbating tensions between Moscow and Kiev.

"Shoigu flew by helicopter around areas where troops and military equipment are deployed and inspected the readiness of sea and land groups taking part in the exercises," said Russia's defense ministry in a statement on Thursday.

The Interfax news agency, citing the defense ministry, said that around 10,000 ground troops and more than 40 warships were taking part in the Crimea exercises.

Shoigu was also cited by Interfax as saying that the military had to be ready to respond rapidly in case of what he called an "unfavorable" development in the situation in the vicinity of NATO's Defender Europe exercises.

In recent weeks, tensions have mounted between Moscow and Kiev amid a spike in violence in the two Russian-speaking eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which are almost collectively known as Donbas.

The armed separatists have already declared the formation of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics.

Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian forces have fought a conflict in Donbas that has killed 14,000 people since 2014 by Ukraine's estimate. Kiev and its Western allies accuse Moscow of having a hand in the crisis by supporting the militants with weapons and troops, a charge Moscow strongly denies.

Relations between Moscow and Kiev first deteriorated when the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea rejoined Russia following a referendum in 2014. More than 90 percent of the participants in the referendum voted in favor of unification.

Earlier in the day, the Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin was aware of an invitation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to meet to discuss the current crisis.

"If the president considers it necessary, he will reply himself. I have nothing to say on that now," said Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Russia has boosted its military presence near Ukraine's borders, making Kiev and its Western allies concerned.

However, Moscow has repeatedly said that its military presence in the vicinity of the common border with Ukraine poses no threat whatsoever to Ukraine or any other country, but that it is always mindful of its own security.

Early this week, the European Union's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, claimed that Russia has massed about 100,000 troops near the border.

The military drills on Thursday came almost a week after Russian news agencies, citing Russia's defense ministry, reported that Moscow plans to purportedly close parts of the Black Sea to foreign military and official ships for six months beginning Saturday.

The EU called the alleged move a "highly worrying development," while NATO voiced "concern", calling on Moscow to guarantee "free access" to Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov.

Moscow orders troops to return to bases

Separately on Thursday, the RIA news agency reported that Moscow had ordered its top command to commence returning troops to their permanent bases inside Russia from Friday following the military drills in Crimea.

The Kremlin has already warned that the US and NATO are turning Ukraine into a "powder keg" by increasing arms supplies to Kiev and inflaming tensions in the country's volatile east.

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