A joint military drill was launched Thursday by Russia and Belarus, a move that has escalated tensions with the West, as NATO leaders pursued an intensive diplomatic push to prevent a feared invasion of Ukraine.
The war games, set to run until Feb. 20, are the latest point of contention between Russia and the West over Ukraine, which quickly denounced the maneuvers as "psychological pressure."
Leaders in Western capitals have been warning that Russia is preparing to escalate the conflict after a buildup of some 100,000 troops around Ukraine.
The United States has said Russia is also dispatching some 30,000 troops to Ukraine's neighbor Belarus for the exercises that started Thursday. Moscow and Minsk have not disclosed how many troops are participating in the drills, but the Russian defense ministry confirmed Thursday they had begun.
"The objective of the exercises is to practice suppressing and repelling external aggression with a defensive operation," the ministry said in a statement.
The drills will also focus on "combating terrorism and defending the interests of the Union State," it said, referring to an alliance that binds Russia and Belarus militarily and economically. The Kremlin has insisted the Russian troops will go home after the exercises.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a statement that "the accumulation of forces at the border is psychological pressure from our neighbors."
"Today, we have enough forces to defend our country honorably," he said. The tensions surrounding Ukraine have spurred weeks of intensive talks between Russian, Western and Ukrainian officials to limit the chance of military action.
Russia has put forward sweeping security demands to the United States and the Washington-led NATO military alliance to reduce their role in eastern Europe and former Soviet states.
British Foreign Minister Liz Truss was the latest Western diplomat to travel to Moscow and was scheduled to meet with her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Thursday.
On the eve of the visit, Truss said the purpose was to "urge Russia to pursue a diplomatic solution and make clear that another Russian invasion of a sovereign state would bring massive consequences."
Her trip comes just days after French President Emmanuel Macron was in Moscow and Kyiv, after which he urged continued "firm dialogue" with Russia to defuse concerns of an invasion.
The new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has been under fire over accusations that he has dithered over the crisis, will travel to Kyiv and Moscow next week for separate meetings with the Ukrainian and Russian leaders, including his first in-person meeting with President Vladimir Putin.
Scholz was also due to meet Baltic leaders in Berlin on Thursday and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was to meet with NATO officials before traveling to Warsaw to meet Polish President Andrzej Duda.
On Wednesday, Johnson will promise "1,000 more British troops will be put at readiness in the UK to support a humanitarian response in the region should it be needed", his office said.
Despite signs after weeks of negotiations that diplomacy could bring about a de-escalation of tensions, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby warned Wednesday that Putin has continued sending troops to the border.
"We have continued to see even over the last 24 hours additional capabilities flow from elsewhere in Russia to that border with Ukraine and Belarus," he told reporters.
Ukrainian officials have used more cautious language to describe the immediacy of the threat of the Russian buildup.
Deputy Defense Minister Ganna Malyar said Wednesday the Russian forces on the frontier did not appear to be ready to launch an all-out assault and were instead being used primarily "for political pressure and blackmail."
Fighting between Kyiv's army and pro-Russian separatists that control two breakaway regions has left more than 13,000 people dead since the conflict broke out in 2014.
That year Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, sparking a wave of economic penalties from the West, which the United States and the European have said they will expand if Russia escalates again.