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Russian ally Belarus launches military quick-response drills

An image taken from video shows self-propelled artillery firing during joint Belarusian and Russian military drills in Belarus on Feb. 15. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP)

The Belarusian military has launched large-scale drills to test the readiness of its armed forces to respond quickly to “possible crises” and counter threats from the air and ground, the country’s Defense Ministry said early Wednesday.

The ministry said the training exercise would not “pose any threat to the European community as a whole or to neighboring countries in particular.” Belarus borders Ukraine to its south, Poland to its west, Lithuania and Latvia to its northwest and Russia to its east.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, allowed Russian troops to assemble and conduct military drills in the Eastern European country in the run-up to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. A large part of Russia’s invasion force crossed into Ukraine from Belarus.

The Belarusian military held joint training exercises with Russian forces just before the war, although Lukashenko has denied U.S. and Ukrainian accusations that he could send troops to fight alongside Russia’s forces. Belarusians who oppose Lukashenko’s 28-year rule have joined the battle against Russian troops in Ukraine.

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After Wednesday’s announcement on the drills, a spokesman for Ukraine’s state border guard service, Andriy Demchenko, said the frontier with Belarus was “constantly being strengthened.” But he added: “It cannot be said that they are ready to attack.”

“We do not rule out that the territory of Belarus could be used at some point … against Ukraine,” he said. “So we are ready.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday dismissed as “nonsense” speculation that Moscow was planning to declare a formal war with Ukraine by May 9 — the Victory Day holiday in Russia commemorating the defeat of Nazis at the end of World War II. The Kremlin has so far cast the war as a “special military operation.” The May 9 occasion, also commemorated in Belarus, is marked with parades in Russia.

Lukashenko’s backing of Russia in the conflict has made Belarus a target of additional sanctions from Western governments and has prompted Washington to suspend U.S. Embassy operations in Minsk.

Before the war, the Belarusian leader was in a standoff with the European Union and faced sanctions over his crackdown on protests and political opponents, as well as the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight to arrest an opposition journalist.

Amar Nadhir and Annabelle Chapman contributed to this report.

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