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Russia kicks off huge war games just over Ukraine's border in Belarus

Russian military drills underway in Belarus
Russian military drills in Belarus raise fears of a pretense for invasion of neighboring Ukraine 02:03

Zhytomyr Oblast, northern Ukraine — Russia kicked off huge joint military exercises on Thursday in Belarus, an ally and neighbor that also shares a border with Ukraine. The war games — which Moscow has said will last for 10 days, after which the Russian forces will leave Belarus and return to Russia — have prompted the U.S. and NATO to bolster their forces in the region and carry out their own military drills.

The tens of thousands of troops and weapons that Russia has sent into Belarus for the exercises are just one element of Russia's months-long military buildup around Ukraine's borders. The U.S. government says President Vladimir Putin now has more than 100,000 troops positioned around Ukraine's southern, eastern and northern borders, and that he could decide to order a new invasion of the neighboring country any time.

Russia insists it has no plans to attack Ukraine, but an intensive diplomacy effort by the U.S. and its NATO partners with Moscow this week has failed to yield any signs of deescalation.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Thursday that it was "a dangerous moment for European security," saying that as the "number of Russian forces is going up, the warning time for a possible attack is going down."

Stoltenberg spoke on Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the State Department said they had "discussed diplomatic efforts to urge Russia to de-escalate and engage in meaningful and reciprocal dialogue, as well as United States and Allies' force posture adjustments to fortify the Alliance's Eastern Flank."

CBS News correspondent Imtiaz Tyab was on the Ukrainian side of a border crossing with Belarus on Thursday, just a few dozen miles from where the Russian forces and their allies are holding the military drills — the largest in the country since the Cold War.

Despite the Russian insistence earlier this week that its troop presence in Belarus was to last just 10 days, the fear is that Putin's deployment of roughly 30,000 troops to the country could be the first step to an invasion of Ukraine.

The Kremlin has consistently denied any plans to invade, however, and Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine's top security official, says his country is not panicked, but it is ready for anything.

"The Russians may use Belarus as a ground for provocation," he told Tyab. "It could happen at any moment."

Ukraine announced this week that its own forces would carry out exercises in response to the Russian-Belorusian drills, during exactly the same time frame.

The specter of war has set alarm bells ringing across the world.

White House approves contingency plan to evacuate Americans from Ukraine in case of Russian invasion 05:44

CBS News has confirmed that the U.S. government has plans in place to evacuate the thousands of Americans living in Ukraine — if it needs to do so — to neighboring Poland, a NATO ally to which the U.S. has recently deployed additional troops.

In what he called a reaction to the U.S. and NATO's actions Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters on Thursday that Moscow might evacuate its non-essential diplomatic staff from Kyiv.

The U.S. has urged American nationals in Ukraine to leave for more than a week, citing the possibility of a Russian invasion, and in January the State Department ordered the families of U.S embassy employees in Kyiv to leave the country.

Lavrov suggested it was the West's actions — which include NATO's military buildup in response to the Russian troops around Ukraine, ongoing NATO military exercises close to Russia's borders, urging Western citizens to leave Ukraine and the repeated warnings of a possible imminent Russian invasion — that represent the real threat, to Russia.

"Maybe it is the Anglo-Saxons who are preparing something, if they are evacuating their employees?" the veteran Russian diplomat told reporters after a seemingly fruitless meeting with his British counterpart Liz Truss on Thursday. "We looked at their actions and, probably, we will also advise non-essential personnel of our diplomatic institutions to go home for a while. I don't know what our Anglo-Saxon colleagues are plotting."

Military drills and high tensions over Russia's possible invasion of Ukraine 04:56

"We do not want to threaten anyone," Lavrov said. "Take a look at the public statements: no threats have ever been made. It's we who are being threatened." 

U.S. and European officials continue to say they're unsure whether Putin has decided to launch an invasion, or any other level of attack, against Ukraine. But Russia did invade its neighbor eight years ago, annexing Crimea and sparking a simmering conflict in the east of Ukraine between the country's forces and Russian-backed separatists that continues today, and that Kyiv says has left more than 14,000 people dead.

After her meeting with Lavrov, Britain's top diplomat Truss said the Russian had repeated his insistence that Moscow has no plans to invade Ukraine, but she said, "We need to see those words followed up by actions, and we need to see the troops and the equipment that is stationed on the Ukraine border moved elsewhere, because at present it is in a very threatening posture." 

Russia Belarus Military Drills
In an image taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on February 10, 2022, S-400 air defense systems are seen at a military training ground in the Brest region of Belarus, during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus joint military drills. Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP

Lavrov dismissed his meeting with the British diplomat as pointless, likening it to "a conversation between the mute and the deaf — when [a person] seems to be listening, but they do not hear."

Despite the apparent failure of politicians to find ant common ground to ease the tension, not all Americans in the country are ready to leave yet, however.

Brian Best has lived in Ukraine's capital of Kyiv for more than two decades. It's where he met his wife and is raising his two children. He told CBS News that Ukraine had become "part of who I am. It's part of my identity," and unless bullets start flying in Kyiv, that's where he'll stay.

"We're staying, and certainly our Ukrainian community, they're feeling quite nationalistic right now, you know, calm, calculated… But all of them seem quite confident that this will pass," he said. He suspects Putin is playing for concessions from the West, not a war with it.

"I also believe that the U.S. was quick to heighten the rhetoric, and I think that that was probably a good thing because we needed to shine the spotlight on what Russia is doing," said West. "It's not the Ukrainian military that's on the border of Russia, it's the Russian military that's on the border of Ukraine. So, if anyone is the aggressor, it's Russia."

"This is a peaceful country," West told CBS News of his adopted homeland. "They want sovereignty."

That sentiment is shared by so many Ukrainians, who've told CBS News that if Russia does invade, not only will they stay put, they'll fight back.

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