The Russian military will strengthen its presence in the country’s western and central region in 2016 as a response to the intensifying NATO drills amid the Ukraine crisis. NATO forces have increased their presence in eastern Europe since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, a move that triggered strong opposition from Western powers and led to sanctions against the country and its officials.

“In 2016, three divisions in the Western region and one in the Central region will be formed,” Ground Troops Commander Col. Gen. Oleg Salyukov said Friday, according to Sputnik News, adding: “The formation of new divisions is one of the measures being used in response to the intensity of [military] exercises by NATO countries that have lately been observed.”

A report by RFE/RL said, citing agencies, that one of the divisions will be stationed with the central group of forces while three others will be with Russia's western group of military forces. The report added that all the forces will be assembled on the basis of existing brigades.

The report by RFE/RL also added, citing Salyukov, that in 2016, the country will conduct seven joint military exercises with other countries, including the first in history with Pakistan and Vietnam. Salyukov said that while there were no Russian ground forces on the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, they could be sent there on short notice.

The statement from Salyukov follows NATO’s move last month of stationing four warships in the Black Sea while the U.S. announced it would send a guided missile destroyer, the USS Ross, "to promote peace and stability in the region" under Operation Atlantic Resolve. The operation is a "demonstration of continued U.S. commitment to the collective security of NATO and to enduring peace and stability in the region, in light of Russia's illegal actions in Ukraine," the U.S. Army said.

Ukraine and other Western nations have also accused Russia of helping the pro-Moscow rebels in the eastern part of Europe who have been demanding secession from Kiev’s rule. However, Russia has denied the allegations.