Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a statement carried by RIA, the Russian state-run news agency, that the maneuvers were intended to monitor the readiness of Russia's Northern Fleet and the military's ability to deploy additional forces from the country's heartland.
"New challenges and threats to military security require the armed forces to further boost their military capabilities," Mr. Shoigu said. "Special attention must be paid to strategic formations in the North."
Shoigu said the military drills would involve 38,000 servicemen, more than 50 warships and submarines, and 110 aircraft. They are scheduled to continue through March 21 and are the latest in a series of such exercises in recent years that have dismayed Western nations. As The Wall Street Journal reports:
Western officials have criticized Russia's frequent exercises as threatening and provocative, a charge Moscow parries with its own allegations that military maneuvers near Russia's borders by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are destabilizing.
Reuters reports that Moscow has extended its ambitions in the resource-rich Arctic region, where it shares a border with NATO member Norway. The military will examine its ability to protect its northern borders on land, in the air, and at sea, Shoigu said in televised remarks.
The war games come amid deep tensions between Russia and the West over the crisis in eastern Ukraine. More than 6,000 people have been killed in nearly a year of fighting in the region.
In response to Moscow's continued aggression, a number of former East bloc nations are boosting military training. Three weeks ago Lithuania announced plans to restore compulsory military service for young men amid mounting fears of Russian assertiveness in the Baltic region. The Associated Press reports that the United States is planning to conduct joint exercises with forces from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania later this month.
Polish officials are coordinating with paramilitary groups as they take up new training, according to The New York Times.
Snap military exercises close to NATO's northern and eastern borders have put the Baltic countries on heightened alert for most of the past year. So too has an uptick in the number of close encounters with Russian aircraft. As The Christian Science Monitor reported last month:
Experts warn that if the Kremlin wants to further prod the West, Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors – Latvia and Estonia – could be of particular interest. The three countries were occupied for five decades by the Soviet Union before regaining independence in 1991, and Latvia and Estonia have large Russian-speaking minorities.
The start of the military exercise Monday comes just days ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. In a documentary broadcast by state television on Sunday, Mr. Putin said he was ready to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert during the overthrow of Ukraine's Moscow-friendly president and the subsequent takeover of Crimea, The Washington Post reports. Russia annexed the peninsula on March 19, 2014.