Putin says military drills ‘purely defensive’ as West warns Ukraine invasion imminent

Russian military drills are "purely defensive" and "not a threat to any other country", Vladimir Putin has said.

The Russian president denied he was going to invade Ukraine following Western leaders warning an incursion is imminent as Moscow amasses more than 150,000 troops at the border.

Talking at a news conference with Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko following talks between the two allies, Mr Putin said: "These military exercises, drills, are purely defensive and are not a threat to any other country.

"They were planned and all the objectives of these drills have been achieved."

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Nuclear drills

Earlier on Friday, Russia announced it was going to be holding nuclear drills on Saturday and Mr Putin would personally be overseeing the exercise, along with Mr Lukashenko.

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Mr Putin added that Russia is open to discussions with the US and other Western allies but said he is "demanding" a return to the NATO agreement signed in 1997 with Russia following the Cold War.

"The US and other partners are not accepting these demands or initiatives at the moment," he said.

"We've also talked about certain ideas that were put forward, ideas of transparency and limiting certain types of weapons.

"Russia is open to these discussions."

What are the Minsk agreements and why could they help avert a Russian invasion?

A satellite image shows troops and equipment at the Kursk training area, Russia, February 14, 2022. Picture taken February 14, 2022. Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. MANDATORY CREDIT. DO NOT OBSCURE LOGO

A satellite image shows troops and equipment at the Kursk training area in Russia on February 14. Pic: Maxar Technologies

Russia will counter any Western sanctions

The West has threatened tighter economic sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine, but Mr Putin said countries would probably find a reason to impose sanctions whatever Russia does.

He added that Russia would counter any sanctions.

Mr Lukashenko agreed and said the West was taking a "gangster approach to economics and finance" and Belarus and Russia had learnt how to counteract them after years of sanctions.

What is a false flag operation?

A false flag is a covert military operation designed to appear as though it was carried out by an opponent and therefore create a false justification for war.

The term can also refer to things done by individuals or organisations to bring down their political enemies.

Nazi forces used false flag tactics in the Gleiwitz incident of 1939.

Hitler’s army posed as Polish soldiers and staged an attack on a radio station inside the country. It fuelled support of a German invasion of Poland, which eventually led to the Second World War.

Similarly in 1788 Swedish soldiers dressed up in Russian uniforms to stage an attack on the Swedish outpost of Puumala.

It resulted in the Swedish National Assembly voting for an offensive retaliation and in turn triggered the two-year Russo-Swedish War.

'Free world leaders are dangerous'

Belarus' leader was more effusive in his criticism of Western countries than Mr Putin, saying there had been an "irresponsibility" by a number of Western leaders that had led to the situation over Ukraine.

He added that Mr Putin had been "quite soft talking" when discussing the Donbas region in Ukraine, of which some areas were taken by Russian-backed rebels in 2014.

On Thursday, Ukraine accused the separatists of shelling a kindergarten, which the US, the UK and NATO's leaders said was a "false flag" operation by Russia, in which the Kremlin claims Ukraine has attacked it as a pretext for invasion.

The rebels have also accused Ukrainian forces of shelling them.

The kindergarten in Stanitsya Luhanska

The kindergarten in Stanitsya Luhanska was shelled on Thursday

Mr Lukashenko said people were already fleeing the occupied part of Donbas which is "not normal".

Rebel leaders in the city of Donetsk and in the self-declared Luhansk People's Republic announced an evacuation of residents who will start to be bussed out of the region on Friday evening, the Russian Interfax news agency said.

Mr Lukashenko added that certain politicians from the "so-called free world" are "quite dangerous for those who surround them and their own people".

The Belarus leader said he would be joining Mr Putin for Saturday's nuclear drills and promised the military exercises would be completed soon.

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Security minister Damian Hinds on Sky News


Putin may 'pick his moment' to invade


Dominic Waghorn - Diplomatic editor

Dominic Waghorn

International Affairs Editor


Eastern Ukraine has been the frontline of its war with Russia for eight years and is now the focus of increased violence and deepening alarm.

So why is there is so much tension in the area?

In 2014 after the Ukraine revolution, Russia annexed Crimea, to the condemnation of the outside world.

And it fomented fighting in the Donbas region, where Russian separatists declared two breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk, also not internationally recognised.

A nasty brutal conflict has killed 14,000 people since 2014.

It has helped destabilise eastern Ukraine and undermine the Ukrainian economy suiting what are believed to be Moscow's strategic aims.

The Minsk agreements, signed in 2014 and 2015, attempted to secure a ceasefire between Ukraine and the Russian-backed separatists in Donbas.

But the agreements are ambiguous and have been argued over by Russia and Ukraine ever since with the ceasefire broken most days.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe says in Donetsk the number of ceasefire violations increased almost eight times from 24 to 189 over 24 hours.

In Luhansk from 129 to 402.

Western officials say they are now concerned by a pattern of Russian activity designed to unsettle Ukraine and divide allies.

In addition to increased clashes in the east, these could include more cyber attacks, staged terrorist attacks inside Ukraine, false flag attacks and hostile rhetoric by Putin making unfounded claims Ukraine is carrying out genocide in the Donbas.

Each act falls short of an invasion in itself but taken together they could be enough to elicit a western response.

One official says "it would be more difficult to call when a line has been crossed. We may need to respond quickly and at scale in terms of a sanctions response".

No evidence Russia pulling back troops

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there is no evidence Russia is pulling back troops from the border with Ukraine, as it claims.

"On the contrary, we see additional forces going to the border including leading edge forces that would be part of any aggression," he told the Munich Security Conference.

Nearly 600 explosions were recorded on Friday morning in Donbas, 100 more than on Thursday, the Ukrainian military said.

Western leaders have said there is still time for diplomacy but warned an invasion could be imminent.

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