Russia and Belarus began joint military manoeuvres on Thursday, raising tensions with the West as NATO leaders resumed an aggressive diplomatic effort to avert a feared invasion of Ukraine.

The war drills, which are scheduled to go until February 20, are the newest source of friction between Russia and the West over Ukraine, with the West instantly condemning the manoeuvres as “psychological pressure.”

Western leaders have warned that Russia is poised to escalate the conflict following a buildup of 100,000 soldiers surrounding Ukraine.

According to the US, Russia is also sending 30,000 troops to Ukraine’s neighbour Belarus for the drills, which began on Thursday.

The number of troops participating in the training has not been published by Moscow or Minsk, but the Russian defence ministry confirmed Thursday that they had begun.

“The goal of the drills is to practise suppressing and repelling external aggression with a defensive operation,” according to a statement from the ministry.

The exercises will also focus on “fighting terrorism and preserving the interests of the Union State,” referring to a military and economic alliance that unites Russia and Belarus.

The Kremlin has reiterated that the Russian troops will return home following the exercises.

In a statement, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that “the accumulation of forces along the border is psychological pressure from our neighbours.”

“Today, we have adequate forces to defend our country honourably,” he stated.

The escalating tensions in Ukraine have prompted weeks of rigorous talks between Russian, Western, and Ukrainian officials aimed at reducing the possibility of armed action.

Russia has made broad security demands of the United States and the NATO military alliance led by Washington, with the goal of decreasing their involvement in eastern Europe and former Soviet states.

The latest Western diplomat to visit Moscow was British Foreign Minister Liz Truss, who was set to meet with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Thursday.

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