Putin hosts Belarus strongman for security talks, drills

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb 18, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomed his close ally Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko to the Kremlin on Friday (Feb 18), announcing the leaders would discuss military cooperation and oversee upcoming war games.

Mr Lukashenko's visit to Russia comes as Moscow is facing off against the West over European and Ukrainian security, tensions worsened by large Russian drills in Belarus.

"We will of course talk about the situation in the region, assess how military cooperation is going, including the ongoing military drills," Mr Putin told Mr Lukashenko ahead of talks.

"Tomorrow we will even participate in one of the most significant events in this complex of military cooperation," the Russian leader said.

The Russian defence ministry announced earlier Friday that Mr Putin would oversee military exercises the following day that would involve the launch of cruise and ballistic missiles.

Belarus, wedged between Russia and European Union member states, became more closely aligned with Russia in the wake of historic anti-Lukashenko protests in 2020.

"Our Western partners - as you call them - have brought the military-political spectrum to the forefront, and we have to react to it, including by holding military exercises and through diplomacy," Mr Lukashenko told Putin in Moscow.

He also accused Western leaders of "scaring the world by saying that 'tomorrow' we will attack, encircle, destroy Ukraine".

Washington has estimated that some 30,000 Russian troops have deployed to neighbouring Belarus as part of joint exercises that are due to run until Sunday.

Those drills as well as other large-scale exercises near Ukraine have fuelled concerns in European capitals and Washington that Moscow is preparing an attack on its neighbour.

Russia has denied developing plans and accused Ukraine of breaching ceasefire agreements in the east of the country, where the army is fighting pro-Moscow separatists.

Mr Lukashenko said Thursday his country could host nuclear weapons if it faces any external threats, as tensions soar between his ally Mr Putin and Western leaders.

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