Russia and Belarus started a joint military exercise on Monday, January 16, igniting fears in Kyiv and the West that Moscow could use its ally to launch a fresh ground attack in Ukraine.
Russia joined forces with its neighbour Belarus as one of the launching territories for its attack on Ukraine last February.
The two nations will carry out air force drills from Jan. 16-Feb. 1 using all Belarus military airfields and commence joint army exercises involving a “mechanised brigade subdivision” on Monday, the Belarusian defence ministry revealed.
Belarusian capital, Minsk, says the air drills are defensive and it will not enter the war.
“We’re maintaining restraint and patience, keeping our gunpowder dry,” 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.
Muraveyko said the situation on the country’s southern border with Ukraine was “not very calm” and that Ukraine has been “provoking” Belarus.
“We are ready for any provocative actions on the part of Ukraine,” he said.
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.
Moscow denies that it has been pressuring Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to take a more active role in the conflict in Ukraine.
Belarus has conducted numerous military exercises since the invasion began, both on its own and jointly with Russia. Together with Moscow, Minsk has also been bolstering the drills with weaponry and military equipment.
Reports on social media show a series of fighters, helicopters and military transport planes coming to Belarus since the start of the year – eight fighters and four cargo planes on Sunday alone.
In Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Ukrainian soldiers were still battling around the small salt-mining town of Soledar.
Russian forces claimed to have taken control of the town, but Ukraine insisted on Sunday that its forces were battling to hold the town, with street fighting continuing even as Russian forces advance from various directions.
“Put simply, THE BATTLE CONTINUES,” Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on the Telegram messaging app. “Everything else is unverified information.”