MINSK -- Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka has said that joint military maneuvers will be held with Russia in February close to the borders with Ukraine as well as eastern NATO member states.
Speaking during a meeting with Belarusian military officials on January 17, Lukashenka said that the exact dates of the drills had not been determined yet. He did not specify how many troops would be involved.
The secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, Alyaksandr Volfavich, later told the BelTA news agency that Russian military forces and hardware had begun arriving in the country.
The announcement comes as tensions between the West and Moscow have been growing in recent months over the security of Ukraine, a Western ally that borders both Belarus and Russia.
Kyiv has been battling Kremlin-backed separatists in a conflict that has killed more than 13,200 people since April 2014.
Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Ukraine in what Kyiv and its Western allies fear could be preparations for a potential invasion, something Moscow has denied.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has continued to back ally Lukashenka in his standoff with the West over a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that handed the Belarusian leader a sixth consecutive term in office.
The official election results triggered a wave of protests, with Lukashenka responding with a brutal crackdown on dissent that has seen thousands detained and most opposition politicians leaving the country fearing for their safety.
Lukashenka said on January 17 that next month's military exercises with Russia should focus on a scenario in which his country's military is forced to "resist forces coming from the West."
Without giving evidence, he justified the drills by claiming there was a buildup of troops along Belarus's border with Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states.
Poland and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are both EU and NATO member states.
Last week, the United States and its NATO allies held negotiations with Russia aimed at easing tensions over Ukraine, but the talks failed to make significant progress.
Putin has issued a series of demands for security guarantees in Europe, including NATO not accepting new members like Ukraine and Georgia and limits on allied deployments in Eastern European NATO members.
Western officials say Russia's combative rhetoric and troop buildup near Ukraine is an attempt to pressure the United States and European allies into bending on the Kremlin's wish list.
Moscow insists its military deployment is a response to what it sees as the growing presence of NATO in its sphere of influence and denies it plans to invade Ukraine.