Russia increases joint military drills with Belarus

Jonny Hallam, Josh Pennington, Tim Lister and Nick Paton Walsh

Russia and Belarus are conducting a further week of joint military drills, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday, the latest sign of cooperation between the neighboring allies amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“During the week, military representatives from the two countries will practice joint planning of the use of troops based on the prior experience of armed conflicts in recent years,” the ministry said in a statement.

The ministry said the aim of the training is to improve the compatibility of the two militaries and is part of preparation for the joint Union Shield 2023 exercises the two countries will hold in Russia in September.

The announcement of the new drills comes as Russian and Belarussian aviation combat units continue to conduct training missions during joint flight and tactical exercises of the air forces of the two countries.

The exercises are being held at the Ruzhansky training grounds in Belarus about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of the Ukrainian border.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has backed a plan to set up joint military training centers with Belarus, according to Agence France-Presse.

In a decree published Tuesday, Putin tasked the defense and foreign ministers to conduct talks with Belarus and sign an agreement to establish the facilities, AFP reported.

The document did not specify where they would be based.

Some context: An announcement by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in October that his country and Russia would form a joint regional force and carry out exercises set off alarm bells in Kyiv.

The last time Belarus and Russia forces held joint exercises, in February last year, many of those Russian forces went on to cross the Ukrainian border in their ill-fated drive towards the capital.

But Western officials speaking to media on background this week have expressed doubt that Russia could launch an offensive from Belarus in the coming months.

The Russian troops’ presence would, however, prompt Ukraine into stationing its troops in that direction to “offset that potential risk,” the officials said, even though they stressed it is “hugely unlikely” that Belarus “will be an axis of advance in the next several months.”

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