Putins right-hand man scraps military drills with Belarus in major shake-up

Vladimir Putin’s right-hand man announced no military drills would take place with Belarus this year as Russian troops are already “having exercises” in war-torn Ukraine.

During a press conference held on Monday following Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s talks on the Black Sea Grain Deal, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was asked about the Zapad military exercise and whether it would be carried out in 2023.

Mr Shoigu said, as quoted by Russian-state news agency RIA: “No, this year we are having exercises in Ukraine.”

The last Zapad drills were undertaken by Moscow and Minsk’s troops between September 10 and 15, 2021.

The Russian Ministry of Defence claimed some 200,000 troops, 760 pieces of equipment and 15 ships took part in those drills.

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The large scale of these exercises was one of the clues that led the US intelligence community to predict Putin was planning an operation – which turned out to be a full-scale invasion – in Ukraine.

Speaking to Politico earlier this year, General Mark Milley, the 20th chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of the last Zapad: “We’re out of Afghanistan by 31 August, and there was a planned Russian exercise called Zapad, and they started marshalling the troops for the exercise in the September time frame.

“Right about then we realised this is odd; it was much bigger in scale and scope than the previous year’s exercise.”

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Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 2022 with the help of Belarus, which allowed Putin’s troops to launch an attack on Kyiv from its territory.

While the Kremlin thought the war would last only a few days, Putin and his military leadership encountered resistance from Ukraine, which has since received the support of NATO members in the form of military aid allowing Kyiv to defend its borders.

In June, Ukrainian troops launched their counter-offensive manoeuvres, which is seeing Kyiv slowly but surely retaking several villages from Russian hands.

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During the same press conference on September 4, Mr Shoigu also spoke about other possible military drills, this time with allies in the east.

After the emergence of a report claiming the Defence Minister had proposed to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to carry out drills not just with Russia but also with China, Mr Shoigu said the possibility was indeed under consideration.

He added: “Why not? These are our neighbours. There’s an old Russian saying: You don’t choose your neighbours, and it’s better to live with your neighbours in peace and harmony.”

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