Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has ordered snap drills in the country’s south-west amid renewed hostilities in the South Caucasus.
Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, announced the drills on Friday, saying that they aim to test the armed forces’ military capability in the area “where grave terrorist threats persist” and get ready for the major annual exercises to be held in the same location in September.
The drills that began on Friday will involve nearly 150,000 troops, 27,000 military vehicles, 414 jets and 106 ships in Russia’s first public show of force since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
The North Caucasus in Russia’s south-west was a source of insurgency throughout the 1990s and early 2000s but the area has been largely peaceful in the past decade.
In Ingushetia, footage released by the Russian military on Friday showed dozens of tanks rolling out of a military base; in Novorossiysk on the Black Sea, ships were seen sailing away from the shore.
Troops were also shown leaving their barracks in Abkhazia, Georgia’s breakaway republic that has been under Russia’s control since the 2008 five-day war.
The Russian Defence Ministry also announced on Friday that it would be holding its major annual military exercises in the same area in September.
Ukraine, which also borders the Black Sea and fights Russia-backed separatists in the country's east, said on Friday that it would invite Nato troops for military exercises at about the same time.
"Our symmetrical response will show the readiness of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to resist any Russian attempts to stoke tensions or start major hostilities," Andriy Taran, the country's defence minister, said in parliament.
Russia’s drills by the Black and Caspian Seas came a few days after a flare-up of fighting in a long-simmering conflict between Russia’s south-west neighbours, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The nations in the South Caucasus have been locked in a dormant conflict over Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in the south, which is mainly ethnic Armenia. This week’s hostilities, however, centre around the Tavush region in Armenia’s north-east.
Clashes along the border started on Sunday, with both sides accusing each other of shelling military positions and villages, which has claimed at least 15 lives.
The renewed hostilities set off protests in Azerbaijan where tens of thousands took to the streets of the capital Baku and even stormed the parliament on Tuesday, demanding that the government take tougher military action against Armenia which has controlled Nagorno-Karabakh since the early 1990s.
Mr Putin said on Friday he was ready to mediate between the two former Soviet republics, according to the Kremlin. Nikol Pashinyan, the Armenian prime minister, on Friday blamed Azerbaijan for the recent hostilities but conceded that “there is no alternative for peace talks.”
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev on Thursday sacked his foreign minister of 16 years, accusing him of “meaningless” talks with Armenia.