(Reuters) -Belarus said its air force drills with Russia that start on Monday are defensive in nature to prepare for possible combat missions, but the move comes as concerns grow that Moscow is pushing Minsk to join the war in Ukraine.
“The exercise is purely defensive in nature,” said Pavel Muraveyko, first deputy state secretary of Belarusian Security Council, according to a post on the Belarusian defence ministry’s Telegram app on Sunday.
“It will be a set of measures to prepare our and Russian aviation to carry out the relevant combat missions.”
The exercises which will last until Feb. 1 are to involve training for “aerial reconnaissance, deflecting air strikes, air cover of important objects and communications”, Muraveyko added.
The ongoing buildup of Russian troops in Belarus, combined with a flurry of military activity in the country, is an echo to what was happening there just before Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine when Moscow used the country as a springboard to launch the attack.
This has triggered fears in Kyiv and the West that Russia could use its dutiful ally to mount a new ground offensive on Ukraine.
Ukraine has continuously warned of possible attacks from Belarus and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said last week that the country must be ready at its border with Belarus.
The Kremlin has denied that it has been pressuring Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to take a more active role in the conflict in Ukraine. Minsk has said it will not enter the war.
Since the start of the war, Belarus has conducted numerous military exercises, including large-scale comprehensive drills in late August and a number of smaller ones on its own or jointly with Russia.
Together with Moscow, Minsk has also been adding weaponry and military equipment to the drills.
Unofficial Telegram military monitoring channels have been reporting a series of fighters, helicopters and military transport planes coming to the country since the start of the year – eight fighters and four cargo planes on Sunday alone.
Reuters was not able to verify the reports. The Belarusian defence ministry said only that “units” of Russia’s air forces have been arriving in Belarus.
“During the tactical flight exercise, all airfields and training grounds of the Air Force and Air Defence Forces of the Armed Forces of Belarus will be involved,” the ministry said in a statement.
Muraveyko said the situation on the country’s southern border – the border with Ukraine – was “not very calm,” and that Ukraine has been “provoking” Belarus.
“We’re maintaining restraint and patience, keeping our gunpowder dry,” Muraveyko said. “We have the necessary set of forces and means that will respond to any manifestations of aggression or a terrorist threat on our territory.”
(Reporting by Reuters; Writing by Elaine Monaghan and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry)