Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko announced Monday that his army will conduct military exercises next month with Russian forces and criticised what he said was NATO's growing presence in Europe.
“We made plans for a military exercise in February some time ago. Please go ahead and set a specific date and announce it so nobody can accuse us of having massed troops all of a sudden and of being almost ready to go to war,” state media quoted Lukashenko as telling military officials.
The announcement comes as tensions between the West and Russia have been growing in recent months over the security of Ukraine, a close Western ally that borders Belarus and has been battling pro-Moscow separatists for several years.
Moscow has deployed tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine and pressed demands for guarantees that its neighbour and other ex-Soviet states never be admitted to NATO.
Lukashenko said his plans for drills with Russia had been made in December in coordination with his ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, but had not been announced at the time.
He did not specify how many troops would be involved.
He said the drills would be dubbed “Determination of the Union 2022,” and should focus on a scenario in which his country's military is forced to “resist forces coming from the West”.
The Belarusian leader -- in power for nearly three decades -- justified the drills by what he claimed was a build-up of troops along his country's border in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States.
He accused Ukraine of massing thousand of troops, without giving evidence for his claims, and said Warsaw had requested from NATO the deployment of “a multi-echelon network of logistics, supply and technical support.”
Russia has denied that its deployment of troops near Ukraine is in preparation for a ground assault and instead accused NATO of encroaching on its borders and demanded that the Washington-led defence bloc not admit any new members, specifically naming Ukraine and Georgia.