(Reuters) – Russia ruled out handing Crimea back to Ukraine on Tuesday and a Defense Ministry official said nuclear-capable long-range bombers were being sent to the Black Sea peninsula as part of war games.
The huge military exercises, in which the Northern Fleet was put on full alert on Monday and will range from the Arctic to the Black Sea, appear to be a show of force and defiance on the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea.
Russia’s parliament approved the annexation on March 21 last year after Russian forces took control of the peninsula, which is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, and residents backed joining the Russian Federation in a referendum.
Dismissing a U.S. pledge to keep economic sanctions in place on Russia over the annexation, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “Crimea is a region of the Russian Federation and of course the subject of our regions is not up for discussion.”
Russia announced the start of military drills on Monday involving more than 45,000 troops as well as war planes and submarines.
Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified Defense Ministry official as saying on Tuesday the exercises would include the deployment of Tu-22M3 bombers in Crimea.
The official also said long-range Iskander ballistic missiles were being sent to the Kaliningrad exclave bordering NATO members Lithuania and Poland for the war games, which also involve the Baltic Fleet and the Southern Military District.
The military exercises – after President Vladimir Putin’s first public appearance since March 5 – are the latest sign of Russia flexing its muscles since the start of the crisis in Ukraine, where Russia backs separatists fighting Kiev’s forces.
General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, said in January that Crimea, Kaliningrad and the Arctic would be priority areas this year as the military strengthens its combat capabilities.
NATO’s top military commander, General Philip Breedlove, has said Russia’s “militarization” of Crimea could be used to exert control over the Black Sea.
Any military build-up on NATO’s doorstep in Kaliningrad is also a concern for the Western alliance, while the Arctic’s mineral riches and energy reserves ensure that territory there is contested by several nations.
Russian forces seized control of Crimea after the overthrow of a Ukrainian president backed by Moscow, a move described by Russian officials as a coup which threatened the safety of Crimea’s mainly Russian-speaking population.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday Washington would keep economic sanctions in place on Russia as long as Crimea remains under Russian rule.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the 28-nation bloc would also stick to its policy of not recognizing the annexation and pursuing sanctions.
(Editing by Ralph Boulton)