Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reviewed live-fire exercises in western Belarus on Thursday, part of a surge of military activity close to Ukraine.
Russia, in its biggest deployment to Belarus since the Cold War ended, is expected to have 30,000 troops as well as fighter jets and missile systems for the joint exercises that run until Feb. 20, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
The presence of a large Russian force in Belarus has added to western fears that Russia could be preparing to attack Ukraine on multiple fronts. Moscow denies any such intention and says the exercises are defensive in nature.
Ukraine said Russia currently has a total of 115,000 troops near its borders.
The Belarusian Defense Minister released images from Thursday’s exercises showing troops parachuting to the ground, fighter jets in the sky, soldiers dismounting from a helicopter holding weapons, and tanks firing and maneuvering.
Shoigu, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, was pictured looking on with the Belarusian defense minister and other military officials at the Brest military facility in the west of Belarus.
The scale of the deployments and drills pointed to the burgeoning alliance between the ex-Soviet neighbors that has accelerated since Moscow helped Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko weather huge anti-government protests in 2020.
Before the drills took place, Shoigu met Lukashenko and said that Moscow and Minsk would hold a total of 20 joint military maneuvers this year.
Echoing Russia’s official line that it is the West, not Moscow, that is responsible for the tensions in Europe, Shoigu said that Moscow would be ready to help Minsk oppose “the West’s destructive line”.
Separately, the Belarusian foreign ministry called in Ukraine’s ambassador on Thursday to protest over what Minsk said was the flight of a military drone that crossed its border on Jan. 24 to spy on a military training facility.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry described the move as a provocation and said Ukraine had not used any drones.
Russia has not disclosed the number of troops and amount of military hardware it is sending to Belarus. The country of 9.5 million people shares its western border with NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, while Ukraine lies to its south.
Belarus says the exercises are needed due to military buildups in Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states.