Russia begins military readiness drills near Ukraine amid Crimea tensions

MOSCOW, Aug. 25 (UPI) — Amid political tension between Russia and Ukraine, Moscow is making certain its armed forces are ready to fight, if necessary.

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered his military to conduct practice drills on the country’s western edge, near Ukraine and the embattled Crimean Peninsula, to test troops’ readiness. The drills were announced by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“In the course of the first 24 hours, the ability of troops to perform missions under conditions of full combat alert is to be checked,” the ministry said in a statement on its website. “The next step is the deployment of formations and units at military ranges and training areas and their preparation for training task performance.

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“The full procedure of preparation of the Armed Forces for protection of national interests in case of security threat is to be carried out.”

The announcement comes after German Chancellor Angela Merkel accused Moscow of breaking international law in annexing Crimea and supporting separatist rebels there. She emphasized that NATO is prepared to defend member states. She and French President Francois Hollande said Wednesday they will discuss Crimea with Putin at an economic summit in China next month.

The drills are intended to test the ability of Russia’s forces in the south, central and Northern Fleet. Several Russian military aircraft conducted tests Thursday near the western flank.

The troops were put on full combat alert at 7 a.m. local time Thursday and the exercises will run through Aug. 31, the ministry said.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov informed military diplomats of the drills.

“We have informed in good faith the OSCE member states as well as China and Iran of the started unannounced inspection through the official channel,” he said.

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Some critics dismiss the drills as more saber-rattling by Putin in the face of escalating tensions over Crimea, which Moscow annexed two years ago.

Since Russia’s retaking of the Crimean Peninsula, both sides have kept a strong military presence along the borders while diplomatic relations have been tense. Earlier this month, Putin blamed Ukraine for the deaths of two Russian service members in the region.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko placed his military on high alert last week, saying, “We don’t rule out a full-scale Russian invasion.”

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