As was the case last time, Russian officials denied the drills were connected to the tensions in Ukraine, but even Russian media outlets are linking the two.
The RIA Novosti state news service said some 3,500 troops and more than 1,000 units of military hardware will be involved in month-long air-defense exercises, about 280 miles from the Ukraine border.
The drills will culminate in live-firing of air defense systems including S-300 long range surface-to-air missiles, Buk-M1 medium-range missiles and Strela-10 short-range missiles.
ITAR-Tass said it 30 trains had transported the hardware to the exercise site from across Russia.
“It is the largest-ever exercise held by air defense units of the Western Military District,” RIA Novosti quoted a military spokesman, Col. Oleg Kochetkov, as saying, and adding that they were part of a regular combat training cycle.
“The exercise, however, coincides with further escalation of a political crisis in Ukraine that has led to the current standoff between Russia and the West over the fate of Crimea, an autonomous Ukrainian region with a majority ethnic Russian population,” the news agency report noted.
Secretary of State John Kerry described the measures as “concrete steps to reassure our NATO allies” in the light of the tensions over the Ukraine situation. The pro-Kremlin Russia Today television network called them “tenuous saber rattling.”
On February 26 Putin ordered large-scale military drills in Russia’s central and western military districts, which included regions bordering Ukraine. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the previously unannounced exercises were unrelated to the turmoil across the border. Although Russia does periodically carry out snap military preparedness drills, Russian media outlets linked the move directly to Ukraine.
When the Kremlin announced on Tuesday that Putin had ordered troops back to base and the exercises over, many media outlets said the move appeared designed to lower tensions with the West. The markets reacted positively too, with the Moscow stock exchange recovering slightly after a 10-point drop the previous day.
“There have been some reports that President Putin is pausing for a moment and reflecting on what’s happened,” President Obama said at the time.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Thursday that Obama had been referring with that comment “specifically to the announcement, apparently fulfilled, of the decision to move military units in the west of Russia back to their barracks, after the completion of the announced exercises.”