Russia is postponing naval maneuvers that have rocked EU member Ireland

Russia says it will move naval exercises off the coast of Ireland after Dublin raised concerns amid a tense row with the West over expanding the NATO alliance and fears Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine

The February 3-8 exercises were to take place 240 kilometers (150 miles) off the south-west of Ireland – in international waters but within Ireland’s exclusive economic zone. Ireland is a member of the 27-nation European Union, but not a member of NATO.

Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney protested the war games this week, saying: “This is not the time to increase military activity and tensions around what is happening with and in Ukraine. The fact that they are choosing to do this on the western borders of the EU off the coast of Ireland is simply not welcome in our view.”

The Russian embassy in Ireland posted a letter on Facebook on Saturday from Ambassador Yuriy Filatov saying the drills would be moved outside Ireland’s economic zone “with the aim of not hampering fishing activities”.

The decision was a rare concession amid escalating tensions surrounding Russia’s amalgamation of an estimated 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine and its demands that NATO promise to never allow Ukraine to join the alliance, nearing the deployment of NATO weapons to stop the Russian border and push back his troops from Eastern Europe.

The US and NATO formally rejected those demands this week, although Washington outlined areas where discussion is possible and offered hope that there might be a way to avoid war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not commented publicly on the West’s reaction. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there was little chance of an agreement, although he also said Russia does not want war.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Friday that Putin could use any part of his forces to seize Ukrainian cities and “significant territories” or carry out “duress or provocative political acts” such as recognizing breakaway territories within Ukraine.

Two areas in eastern Ukraine have been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

A Russian lawmaker is encouraging residents of these areas of Ukraine to join the Russian army, a sign Moscow continues to seek to integrate these areas as much as possible. Viktor Vodolatsky said Saturday that residents of rebel-held areas in eastern Ukraine fear attacks by Ukrainian forces and that those holding Russian passports would be welcomed into the Russian military.

“If Russian citizens living in the (territories) want to join the Russian armed forces, the Rostov Regional Military Commissariat will register and conscript them,” Vodolatsky, deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on relations with neighbors, told the state news agency Tass .

Russia has issued passports to more than 500,000 people in rebel-held areas. Vodolatsky said the recruits would serve in Russia – but that leaves open the option that they could join a future invasion force.

A senior official in President Joe Biden’s administration said the US welcomed Lavrov’s comments that Russia does not want war, “but this needs to be backed up by action. We need to see Russia withdraw some of the troops it has deployed from the Ukrainian border and take other de-escalating steps.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Lavrov said the US suggested the two sides could talk about restrictions on the use of intermediate-range missiles, restrictions on military exercises and rules to prevent accidents between warships and aircraft. He said the Russians had suggested discussing these issues years ago, but Washington and its allies never took it up.

He also said that these issues are secondary to Russia’s main concerns about NATO. He said international agreements say that one nation’s security must not come at the expense of others, and said he would send letters to his western counterparts urging them to explain their failure to honor that promise.

Washington has warned Moscow of devastating sanctions if it invades Ukraine, including penalties on top Russian officials and key sectors of the economy. Lavrov said Moscow had warned Washington that sanctions would amount to a complete severing of ties.

NATO, meanwhile, said it was strengthening its deterrence in the Baltic Sea region.

Russia has launched military exercises involving motorized infantry and artillery units in south-west Russia, fighter jets in Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea and dozens of warships in the Black Sea and Arctic. Russian troops are also in Belarus for joint exercises, raising fears in the West that Moscow may stage an attack on Ukraine from northern Belarus. The Ukrainian capital is only 75 kilometers from the border with Belarus.

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