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Putin, Lukashenko Discuss Defense Cooperation in Minsk

By Vusala Abbasova May 25, 2024

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as they walk upon his arrival at an international airport in Minsk, Belarus. / Mikhail Metzel / AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko during a two-day visit to Minsk, as part of a series of international trips marking the start of his fifth term in office. The leaders focused on strengthening defense cooperation amid growing tensions near the Union State’s borders.

At a joint press conference, President Putin emphasized the importance of forming a unified defense strategy. He highlighted the deployment of joint regional troops, advanced defense systems, and tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

“These measures ensure the reliable protection of the Union State’s western borders and the member countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO),” Interfax quoted President Putin as saying on Friday.

Putin also discussed joint military exercises involving non-strategic nuclear weapons, which aim to enhance training and preparedness.

Nuclear analysts believe that these drills, announced for the first time on May 6, are intended as a warning from Putin to deter Western nations from further involvement in the Ukraine conflict. While Western countries have supplied weapons and intelligence to Kyiv, they have refrained from deploying troops.

The trip to Belarus marks Putin's second foreign visit since his inauguration for a new term on May 7. Earlier this month, Putin visited China and is scheduled to visit Uzbekistan on May 26-27 for his third international trip. He also hosted Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in Moscow on Thursday.

Belarus – a former Soviet republic – is vital to Russia both economically and strategically. Located between Russia and NATO allies in northeastern Europe, Belarus serves as a buffer against the Western military block.

The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, which has a 1,084-kilometer (673-mile) border with Ukraine, would allow Russian aircraft and missiles to reach potential targets there easily and quickly if Moscow decides to use them. It also extends Russia’s capability to target several NATO allies in Eastern and Central Europe.

While the Belarusian army has not fought in Ukraine, Minsk and Moscow have a close military relationship. Ahead of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, tens of thousands of Russian troops were reportedly moved to Belarus to conduct military exercises. Russia used the country as a staging post for the invasion of northern Ukraine.

Russia and Belarus are co-founders of the Union State, which supposes the gradual establishment of a unified political, economic, military, customs, currency, legal, humanitarian and cultural space.

Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, is a longstanding ally of Putin. Their alliance strengthened further after Putin supported Lukashenko against mass protests following his 2020 re-election. Putin and Lukashenko last met in Moscow on May 9, and prior to that on April 12. The leaders of Russia and Belarus maintain regular contact, sometimes as frequently as every few weeks.