MINSK (AFP) - White House national security adviser John Bolton was to meet President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk on Thursday (Aug 29) for rare US talks with Belarus's strongman ruler.
The visit by a key aide to US President Donald Trump is part of a regional tour that is sure to ruffle feathers in Moscow, which sees ex-Soviet neighbour Belarus as a crucial partner.
Mr Bolton will meet with Mr Lukashenko and Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei "to discuss regional security and emphasise US support for Belarus's sovereignty and independence", the US embassy in Minsk said.
Often dubbed "Europe's last dictatorship", Belarus has been largely isolated by the international community, though Russia remains a close ally.
Speculation has swirled for years of unification with Russia, in particular as a way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to circumvent Russia's constitutional term limits.
Mr Lukashenko, a Soviet-era collective farm chief who become Belarus's first post-independence president, has often pushed back, saying earlier this year that 98 per cent of his citizens oppose unification with Russia.
Belarus was long subject to Western sanctions over the country's poor rights record and lack of fair elections.
In 2016 the US eased its sanctions, saying this opened the door "to expanded commercial ties". The European Union meanwhile dropped its sanctions in what it said was a bid to encourage progress on human rights.
But the Belarusian authorities have ramped up efforts to control media since anti-government demonstrations in 2017, with independent journalists and activists facing pressure and harassment.
Mr Bolton's visit to Minsk comes after a meeting Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev on Wednesday.
The US advisor stressed Ukraine's "territorial integrity" in the face of its conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in the country's east.
On Thursday morning Mr Bolton met with the president of Moldova, where he said the US would continue working with the former Soviet republic in defence and the economy.
Moldova recently formed a new government made up of an unusual coalition of pro-European and pro-Russian forces, following months of political turmoil.
"We discussed a wide range of questions relating to bilateral ties, and noted how these had strengthened after a peaceful transfer of power in June this year," Moldovan President Igor Dodon said.
Analysts said Mr Bolton's trip was aimed at probing for "weak spots" on Russia's borders.
"The United States is likely to search for openings to increase its influence in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova," US geopolitical think tank Stratfor said.
The trip was the highest-ranking US visit to Belarus in two decades, the think tank said. The last US ambassador to Minsk left the country in 2008 in a spat over sanctions.
"While Belarus remains firmly within Russia's orbit, the countries' recent spats over oil supplies may have created an opening for the United States to attempt to expand economic and energy ties," Stratfor added.