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Putin bolsters Belarus as Kyiv eyes assault from the north – POLITICO Europe

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Russian president said he was ready to train crews for Belarusian warplanes modified to carry nuclear warheads.
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Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rare visit to Minsk on Monday to double down on military cooperation in areas such as ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable warplanes, as fears grow in Kyiv that Belarus could join the ground war against Ukraine.
It was Putin’s first visit to Belarus since 2019, which is significant because the normal arrangement is for Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to travel to Moscow to pay homage to his close ally.
At a joint press conference, Lukashenko said Belarus had deployed the Russian-made Iskander mobile ballistic missile system with a range of up to 500 kilometers, while Putin said there was room for further cooperation in Su-24 warplanes that have been modified to carry tactical nuclear weapons.
Putin said it was now possible “to continue the implementation” of Lukashenko’s earlier proposals on these planes, which would mean “the training of the crews of warplanes of the Belarusian army, which have already been modified for the possible use of air-based ammunition with a special warhead.”
Lukashenko, however, sought to play down any suggestion this amounted to nuclear saber-rattling.
“It’s not a threat to anyone,” added Lukashenko during the press conference, which was broadcast online. “We are very concerned about the tensions along the perimeter of the union state [of Russia and Belarus], primarily in the West.”
Russia also supplied S-400 air missile defense systems to Belarus, Lukashenko added.
In the opening weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Minsk allowed Russian forces to use its territory as a springboard for an attack on northern Ukraine and Kyiv, as well as providing medical assistance to injured Russian forces.
After the withdrawal of Russian troops from northern Ukraine and the territories around Kyiv, Belarusian authorities have provided their territory to Russia to launch missile strikes against Ukraine and for the training of Russian troops.
During the press conference, Putin and Lukashenko did not comment on Moscow’s almost 10-month war on Ukraine and the possible involvement of Minsk in Russia’s ground operation after a series of setbacks for Russian troops.
However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the idea that Putin’s visit to Minsk was aimed at pressuring Lukashenko to step into the brutal war. Peskov branded such allegations of Kyiv as “groundless and stupid speculations.”
Kyiv puts little store in what the Kremlin says, however.
On Sunday, the commander of Ukrainian joint forces Serhiy Nayev said in a video statement that Putin last week held an official meeting with the leadership of the Russian army, during which, “he considered the proposals of the military command for the near and medium term.”
“Immediately after that, he announced a meeting with the leadership of Belarus … In our opinion, during this meeting, the issues of further aggression against Ukraine and wider involvement of the Armed Forces of Belarus in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, on land, will be worked out,” Nayev said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held a meeting of the staff of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief on Sunday, during which its members “considered the situation in Belarus.”
“Information was heard about the actual number and armament of enemy military groups. The commanders noted the readiness of the defense forces to respond to any developments,” the presidential media office said in a statement.
The meeting between Putin and Lukashenko was held against the background of a massive attack of Iranian-made drones on the Ukrainian capital in the early hours of Monday, which damaged more energy infrastructure in the city.
“These are [drones] Shaheds from the new batch that Russia received from Iran. 250 items — that’s how many Shaheds have now been received by the terrorist state,” Zelenskyy told the meeting of the leaders of the U.K.’s Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) the same day.
The Ukrainian president urged British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak “to increase the possibility” of supplying air defense systems to help speed up decisions by other partners.
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