Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited Minsk for talks with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko who has allowed Moscow to use his country as a staging ground for its offensive in Ukraine.
Footage broadcast by Russian state television showed Putin disembarking from a plane on Monday at a snow-blanketed airport in Minsk and being greeted warmly by his close ally, Lukashenko.
Putin’s trip is his first to Minsk since 2019 – before the COVID-19 pandemic and a wave of antigovernment protests in Belarus in 2020, which Lukashenko crushed with strong support from the Kremlin.
Putin said he and Lukashenko discussed forming “a single defence space” in the region but rejected claims that Moscow was poised to swallow its neighbour.
“Russia isn’t interested in any kind of merger. It’s not feasible,” Putin said.
Putin said that he supported Lukashenko’s proposal to train the crews of Belarusian warplanes that have already been modified for using special warheads – a reference to nuclear weapons.
Lukashenko thanked Putin for providing his military with Iskander short-range missiles and S-400 air defence systems. He also said the countries agreed to continue to hold joint military exercises.
Ukrainian joint forces commander Serhiy Nayev said before Putin’s arrival: “During [these talks], questions will be worked out for further aggression against Ukraine and the broader involvement of the Belarusian armed forces in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, on the ground.”
Lukashenko has said repeatedly he has no intention of sending soldiers into Ukraine.
More active role?
The Kremlin dismissed the suggestion that Putin wants to push Belarus into a more active role in the conflict.
The RIA Novosti news agency quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying such reports were “groundless” and “stupid”.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and his Belarusian counterpart, Viktor Khrenin, were expected to attend the presidential meeting, according to Minsk.
Russian soldiers who moved to Belarus in October will conduct battalion tactical exercises, the Russian Interfax news agency reported, citing the Russian defence ministry. It was not immediately clear when they would start.
Ahead of Putin’s arrival, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also flew to Belarus on Monday for talks.
Lavrov spoke with his counterpart, Sergei Aleinik, who took up the post of foreign minister just a few days ago, about the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine, according to the foreign affairs ministry in Moscow.
They also discussed how Russia and Belarus could defend themselves against political pressure from sanctions imposed by the West, its statement said.
The Belarusian foreign affairs ministry said Lavrov and Aleinik discussed sanctions, but it did not reference Ukraine.
The 10-month conflict in Ukraine is the most significant in Europe since World War II. It has killed tens of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes and reduced cities to ruins.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the country’s armed forces were holding firm in the town of Bakhmut, the scene of the fiercest fighting for many weeks as Russia tries to advance in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
“The battlefield in Bakhmut is critical,” he said. “We control the town even though the occupiers are doing everything so that no undamaged wall will remain standing.”
Zelenskyy on Monday called on Northern European leaders meeting in Latvia to supply his country with a wide range of weapon systems.
Putin casts what he calls Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine as the moment when Moscow finally stood up to the US-led West, which he says is seeking to capitalise on the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union to destroy Russia.
Kyiv and the West say that assertion is absurd, and Putin has no justification for what they see as an imperial-style war of aggression that has put Russia in control of about a fifth of Ukraine.
Moscow said on Monday that Russian and Chinese forces would hold naval drills from Wednesday to December 27, which would include missile and artillery fire in the East China Sea.
While the drills have been held annually since 2012, Moscow has sought to strengthen its political, security and economic links with Beijing in recent months and sees Chinese President Xi Jinping as a key ally in an anti-West alliance.