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RUSSIA & BELARUS: Kremlin Lashes Out At West, Defends Troop Movements, As It Boosts Role In Belarus-EU Border Crisis

(Article text ©2021 RFE/RL, Inc., Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty - rferl.org - Nov. 12, 2021 - article text also appeared at rferl.org/a/russia-belarus-troop-movements-eu-border-crisis/31558499.html)

The Kremlin has vowed to safeguard its borders in the face of actions by countries it accused of trying to "contain" Russia and sought to walk back a Belarusian threat of a cutoff of Russian natural gas to Western markets amid a Belarusian-EU border crisis.

The statements come amid increased Russian involvement in the intensifying standoff between Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka and the European Union, with surprise joint military drills by Russian and Belarusian paratroopers likely to further ratchet up tensions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said in a conference call with journalists on November 12 that "Russia is not a threat to anyone" and that "the movement of our armed forces on our territory should not be a cause for concern."

He was responding in part to U.S. media reports suggesting Washington had raised concerns with its European allies about an attack by Russian forces.

Kremlin-backed separatists continue to control wide swaths of eastern Ukraine in a seven-year conflict that followed Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and periodic buildups of Russian troops in the area have set off alarms in Kyiv and Western capitals.

Moscow is also working closely with its ally Belarus amid a border crisis as thousands of third-country migrants the EU accuses Minsk of "weaponizing" are camped out at Belarus's border with EU member Poland.

Peskov lashed out at adversaries he accused of provocations and of efforts at "containment" near Russia's borders, including in the Black Sea region.

He alleged increased actions by NATO in the region and more airborne spying, saying, "If necessary, we take measures to ensure our security if our opponents take action along our borders."

Moscow this week launched a military show of support for the embattled Lukashenka by flying Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers over Belarus in an operation that Minsk says will continue on a regular basis.

Then on November 12, Belarusian and Russian officials announced suddenly that they were conducting joint military drills near Belarus's border with Poland.

The Belarusian Defense Ministry said via Telegram that a "joint battalion tactical group" of paratroopers at the Gozhsky range in western Belarus were a response to the "buildup of military activity" near its border.

They reportedly include Russian Il-76 aircraft and Belarusian helicopters.

Russia's Defense Ministry described the drills as a "surprise combat readiness check."

EU leaders have accused Lukashenka of "hybrid warfare" tactics by luring migrants from war-torn and impoverished countries in the Middle East and Africa and then purposely pushing them to its borders with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia to retaliate for EU sanctions.

Lukashenka said this week that Minsk "must respond" if the EU takes new punitive measures and raised the possibility of cutting off transit through a pipeline that carries Russian natural gas through Belarus to Poland and farther into Europe.

But Kremlin spokesman Peskov sought to reassure Russia's gas customers on November 12 by citing a previous presidential statement saying Russia, a major supplier of gas to the region, has always met its contractual commitments to European customers.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who fled amid a crackdown after a disputed presidential election in 2020, said Lukashenka was "bluffing" about cutting off gas and urged the EU to stand firm.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone twice this week with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and "spoke in favor of restoring contacts between EU states and Belarus in order to resolve this problem," the Kremlin said in a statement.

The EU has refused. The bloc severed ties and imposed sanctions after a heavy crackdown on the opposition that followed last year's presidential election, which Lukashenka claimed to win, but no Western countries have recognized.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa

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Key Words: Russia, Belarus, Russian Military, EU, Europe, Migrants, Weaponizing Migrants, NATO

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