On Monday, Russia and Belarus launched joint aerial exercises in Belarusian airspace. The exercises are expected to last a full 2 weeks, ending on February 1. It is a worrisome sign for neighboring Ukraine as its war with Russia enters a full year next month.
Due to accusations from Kyiv that Belarus is about to join Russia in its war against Ukraine, Minsk called the drills “defensive in nature” in an attempt to downplay joint exercises that are being taken as an escalation by Ukraine. Minsk has also referred to the exercises as “technical drills.”
An Al Jazeera correspondent in Moscow noted that ” We all know that last month President Vladimir Putin went to Minsk, where he met his counterpart [Alexander] Lukashenko, where they agreed that Russia will provide the Belarusian air force with training to be able to use what they described as aircraft that could carry unconventional weapons.”
The correspondent added, “there are many concerns with the role Belarus is playing with respect to the war, whether this is going to have [an] impact.”
While there have been numerous reports over the last few weeks of heavy Russian equipment being transported by train into Belarus, the Pentagon said last week that it had yet to observe any Russian troop movements in Belarus that would suggest that Moscow and Minsk are planning new attacks on Ukraine.
The joint air force exercises being conducted over the next two weeks are set to include joint air patrols, airborne operations, action to support ground forces, transport flights, and air reconnaissance. It is unknown how many aircraft will be involved in the drills.
In anticipation of the joint exercises, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko visited a military base where Russian troops are stationed 10 days ago.
At the time of Lukashenko’s visit, a defense ministry official said, “At this stage, units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation are ready to carry out tasks as intended.” Lukashenko has also previously referred to Moscow’s war in Ukraine as part of Belarus’s “common cause” with Russia.
While the buildup of forces in Belarus for the joint exercises holds the attention of NATO and its Western allies, Kyiv has maintained a position that Russia is using Belarus as a staging ground to launch drones in its continued attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.