Ukraine plans to conduct missile test launches near the border with Russian-occupied Crimea this week amid threats from Moscow that it will launch a military strike in retaliation.
Kiev’s armed forces are expected to hold the training missile launches on Thursday and Friday. A spokesman for Ukraine’s defense ministry said Wednesday that the exercises will take place despite threats from Russia.
The Russian defense ministry warned in a letter to the Ukrainian embassy in Russia last week that Moscow’s forces would shoot down Ukrainian missiles and engage missiles launchers if Kiev moved forward with the missile launches.
The Russian defense ministry accused Ukraine of placing “illegal restrictions” on airspace over the Black Sea off the coast of Crimea to conduct the missile launches, according to a statement quoted by the Ukrainian Independent Information Agency.
“With regard to some threats and the like, they cannot interfere with the plans of the armed forces of Ukraine and the designers of military weapons which will be carried out on the territory of a sovereign Ukraine,” Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s defense ministry, said Wednesday when addressing reports that Russia could launch missiles at Ukraine in retaliation for the military drills.
“We have a national territory of Ukraine, where we will carry out all the tests and drills and no one will tell to us what to do here,” Lysenko said, according to Interfax-Ukraine.
The development is the latest evidence of heightened tensions between Moscow and Kiev, which have persisted since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in spring 2014. Russian-backed separatists have battled Ukrainian forces in the eastern part of the country for more than two years.
Earlier this year, Ukraine ordered troops on the border with Crimea to high alert as officials worried that Moscow would use accusations of Ukrainian intelligence agents plotting terror attacks on the peninsula’s critical infrastructure as a pretext for military threats.
Russian officials criticized Ukraine’s planned missile tests this week but offered few details about possible military responses from Russia.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to say Wednesday whether Russian President Vladimir Putin had directed the defense ministry to prepare a military response to Ukraine’s planned drills near Crimea, according to Tass, a Russian state-controlled media outlet. He said that the Russian government “would like Ukraine to refrain from violating international law and creating unsafe conditions for international flights over Russia.”
Separately, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the planned military exercises a “new large-scale provocation” meant to elicit a “tough response” from Moscow.
Meanwhile, a source with Russian defense forces in Crimea informed Tass on Wednesday that Moscow’s air defense forces on the peninsula had been put on “enhanced alert” in advance of the forthcoming missile launches, including ground-based forces and ship-based air defense crews with Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Increased tensions between Moscow and Kiev come at a time of transition for the U.S. government, as President Barack Obama marks his final weeks in office and President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take over the White House. Experts worry that U.S. adversaries like Russia and China could carry out provocations in the coming weeks to exploit the lame duck administration or test the new administration.
Russia’s relations with the United States and other Western powers have soured over its military intervention in Ukraine, with the United States and European Union slapping sanctions on Russia for its actions. The Obama administration has been criticized for its reluctance to provide lethal aid to Ukrainian troops.
NATO member states plan to bolster forces on the alliance’s eastern flank to protect against further Russian aggression. Moscow has promised to counter this build-up with its own deployment of forces.
Ties between Moscow and Washington have frayed further as a result of the conflict in Syria and the Russian government’s alleged role in cyber attacks intended to influence the U.S. presidential election.