Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, whose country is hosting some 30,000 Russian troops for joint training exercises close to the border with Ukraine, will travel to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the official Belarusian press agency reported Wednesday.
The BelTA news service said the working visit will discuss a wide range of issues, including “current challenges to security in the region [and] joint action to ensure the national interests of the two countries.”
The massive Allied Resolve 2022 military maneuvers now underway in Belarus have been particularly unnerving for Western governments, putting thousands of fresh Russian troops and sophisticated weapons near a border that is just 40 miles from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Russian land and naval forces already have Ukraine effectively encircled on three sides.
Russian and Belarusian military officials have insisted the Russian forces will go home after the end of the exercises on Feb. 20.
But U.S. and NATO officials say they have seen no evidence yet of any Russian pullback from Ukraine and Mr. Lukashenko suggested that Feb. 20 date may not be a hard deadline.
The West “is shouting: ‘When will the troops be withdrawn?’” the longtime Belarusian leader said Monday. “Listen, this is our business with Putin. We will meet in the near future and schedule the withdrawal of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation from here.”
Facing growing isolation and sanctions from Europe and the U.S. over his authoritarian rule and crackdown on pro-democracy forces at home, Mr. Lukashenko has moved closer in recent months to the Kremlin.
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said Wednesday in a press briefing that Minsk stands strongly behind a key demand of Mr. Putin — that NATO halts its eastward expansion and, in particular, rule out future membership for Ukraine.
“We have always been resolutely against the expansion of NATO,” Mr. Makei said, according to a separate BelTA report. “We believe that the promises that were once made to [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev have been broken by our Western partners” in the decades after the end of the Cold War.
“Everything that is happening now around Ukraine is created artificially and deliberately by forces that do not want Russia to play a decisive and important role in ensuring security in the region and in the world in general,” he added.
Mr. Lukashenko claimed the 10-day exercises with Russia were held close to the Ukrainian border because “saboteurs” from Belarus‘ “self-exiled opposition” were compiling weapons and running training camps inside Ukraine.