By Tom Balmforth
MOSCOW – Russia held military drills on Wednesday and deployed more forces and fighter jets to Belarus for exercises next month as officials prepared to sit down for four-way talks in Paris on the conflict in east Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s point man on Ukraine was due to meet officials from France, Germany and Ukraine for “Normandy format” talks in Paris against the backdrop of a Russian military buildup near Ukraine that has sparked fears of an invasion.
Russia insists it does not plan to invade, but the West has threatened severe economic penalties if that does happen. U.S. President Joe Biden said on Tuesday he would consider personal sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin and Britain said on Wednesday it would not rule out doing the same.
The Normandy talks to end the war in eastern Ukraine between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists have met for years without real progress, but Wednesday’s talks may be seen as a positive sign of diplomacy taking place despite the soaring tensions.
The confrontation over Ukraine triggered a sell-off on Russian markets this week and the rouble was down again on Wednesday.
Interfax news agency quoted the Russian defence ministry as saying it deployed a paratrooper unit to Belarus on Wednesday, a day after moving in artillery forces and marines ahead of joint exercises next month. It said Russia was also moving Su-35 fighter jets to Belarus for the “Allied Resolve” exercises.
The buildup of Russian forces in Belarus, north of Ukraine, creates a new front for a possible attack.
Separately, Russian artillery forces in the southern Rostov region that borders Ukraine were set to practice firing later on Wednesday as part of a combat readiness inspection of the Southern Military District, the Defence Ministry said.
In the far north, Russian warships entered the Barents Sea to practice protecting a major shipping lane in the Arctic, the Northern Fleet said. Moscow announced sweeping naval exercises last week.
A spokesman for Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin’s representative on Ukraine, said the talks in Paris would start at 1100 GMT with a news briefing expected after 1400.
Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy, said Ukraine ruled out talking directly to the Russian-backed separatists.
(Reporting by Tom Balmforth, Vladimir Soldatkin, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Maria Kiselyova; editing by Mark Trevelyan)