Russia and Belarus will hold joint military drills in February, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday, amid soaring tensions between East and West over Ukraine.
Russia, a close ally of Belarus, has worried the West and Kyiv with a troop build-up near Ukraine’s borders and a barrage of threatening rhetoric, stirring fears that it plans to invade.
Moscow denies any such plan, but has used the standoff to campaign for security guarantees from the West, including a halt to NATO expansion and a formal veto on Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, ever joining the military alliance.
“We were planning to start exercises in February. Set an exact date and let us know, so we aren’t blamed for massing some troops here out of the blue, as if we are preparing to go to war,” Lukashenko told his defense minister.
The Belarusian leader, a pariah in the West since cracking down on protests in 2020 and a migrant crisis with the European Union, said the exercises would be held on Belarus’s southern and western borders.
The former Soviet republic of 9.5 million, which Moscow sees as a buffer state to the West, borders Ukraine to its south and NATO members Poland and Lithuania to its west.
Lukashenko, who has grown closer to the Kremlin as the West shunned him, accused Ukraine of building up troops near Belarus in comments circulated by the Defense Ministry.
He said Poland and the Baltics had more than 30,000 soldiers near Belarus’s borders.
“These should be normal exercises to work out a certain plan in the confrontation with these forces: the west (the Baltics and Poland) and the south (Ukraine),” the state Belta news agency quoted him as saying.
The Kremlin said separately that reports that Estonia was prepared to host up to 5,000 NATO troops showed Moscow was right to be worried.
“It’s exactly things like that which prove we have grounds to be concerned and it proves we’re not the reason for escalating tensions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
He was asked on a conference call to comment after a senior Russian official declined to rule out or confirm whether Russia could deploy missiles in Venezuela or Cuba if the West refused to deliver Moscow’s security guarantees.
“For Latin America – we’re talking about sovereign states there, let’s not forget that. And in the context of the current situation, Russia is thinking how to ensure its own security… We are … reviewing different scenarios,” he said.