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Belarus says Russian forces to remain for more joint drills citing Ukraine tension

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Belarus said on Sunday that joint exercises involving Russia and Belarus forces were being extended due to tension over Ukraine, despite promises from Moscow that the drills would end this weekend.

“The presidents of Belarus and Russia decided to continue inspections of the readiness of Union State forces,” the Belarusian defense minister Victor Khrenin said in a statement.

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He said the decision was taken due to increased military activity along the Belarusian and Russian borders and because of an “escalation” in east Ukraine.

The next stage would address defense areas that had not beenfully covered by the earlier stages of training, Belarus Defence
Minister Viktor Khrenin said.

“In general, its focus will remain unchanged -- it is designed to ensure an adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations of ill-wishers near our common borders,” Khrenin said.

There was no immediate comment from Russia.

The drills in Belarus -- which had been due to conclude on Sunday -- have exacerbated tension between Moscow and Western capitals over a feared Russian attack on Ukraine.

Washington had previously said that the Kremlin had dispatched an estimated 30,000 troops to the exercises across ex-Soviet Belarus, including on Ukraine’s northern border.

The Belarus defense ministry said upcoming stages of the large-scale drills would continue the aim of ensuring a sufficient military response to any external threats.

It did not specify an end date.

Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko has become an increasingly close ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. This bond grew stronger after Moscow threw its political weight behind Minsk during large anti-government protests in 2020.

Russia’s build-up of forces surrounding Ukraine, currently estimated by the West at more than 150,000 to the north, east and south, has prompted NATO to dispatch reinforcements to eastern Europe.

Moscow, which denies preparing to invade Ukraine, has seized on this to argue that it is the United States and its allies who are whipping up tensions.

Demonstrating the close alliance between Moscow and Minsk, Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko sat with Vladimir Putin
in a “situation center” on Saturday while the Russian president observed strategic nuclear exercises involving the launch of
hypersonic and cruise missiles.

Belarus’s embattled opposition had feared that Russian troops might not leave their country following the drills, a move that would cement closer ties between Putin and Lukashenko.

Belarus Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei however said shortly after the drills began earlier this month that “not a single” Russian soldier would remain in the country after the massive joint maneuvers end.

The French presidency had also said that Emmanuel Macron had received assurances from Putin that Russian troops would depart following the drills.

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