UPDATED: Russia, Belarus to end drills as planned, Russia starts Caspian navy drills

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MOSCOW, Feb 17 (Reuters) – Russia and Belarus will end their joint military drills on Feb. 20 as previously planned, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday, addressing Western concerns that Russian troops may stay in Belarus for a longer time.

Separately, the RIA news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that the matter of extending Russian troops’ stay in Belarus was not on the agenda.

The drills in Belarus have added to Western fears of a possible Russian invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. Moscow has denied planning such an attack.

 Around 20 Russian warships started drills in the Caspian Sea on Thursday, Russia’s defence ministry said, part of broader war games involving most of its army and navy.

Russian military activity has drawn global attention amid its standoff with the West over Ukraine’s NATO aspiration. Moscow has massed over 100,000 troops near its neighbour’s borders but denies planning an attack.

Meanwhile, satellite images show Russia has pulled back some military equipment from near Ukraine, but that other hardware has arrived and that Russia still has a lot of forces and equipment near its ex-Soviet neighbour, a private U.S. company said on Thursday.

The images released by U.S.-based Maxar Technologies, which has been tracking the buildup of Russian forces for weeks, could not be independently verified by Reuters.

Western countries warned on Wednesday that there was a growing Russian military presence at Ukraine’s borders, contradicting Moscow’s insistence of a partial pullback. 

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova; Writing by Olzhas Auyezov; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Photo – A still image taken from a handout video made available by the Russian Defence Ministry press service shows a SU-30SM of the Russian Air Force during the joint operational exercise of the armed forces of Belarus and Russia ‘Union Courage-2022’ in the Brest region of Belarus. EPA-EFE/RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE/HANDOUT

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