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Russian defence minister in Belarus ahead of joint drills

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By Reuters

MOSCOW – Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived in Belarus on Thursday to inspect Russian and Belarusian troops’ preparations for joint drills this month, Belarus’ defence ministry said, amid a tense standoff with the West over neighbouring Ukraine.

Moscow’s military moves are being closely watched by the West at a time when a build-up of Russian troops near the border with Ukraine has sparked fears of an invasion.

At a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Shoigu said the two countries planned to hold a total of 20 joint military manoeuvres this year, and Moscow stood ready to help Minsk oppose “the West’s destructive line”, Russia’s RIA news agency reported.

Russia has moved an undisclosed number of troops and military hardware to Belarus, which also borders Ukraine, for the Feb. 10-20 joint drills, saying it will withdraw them afterwards.

Moscow has denied it plans to launch an attack on Ukraine, while also demanding guarantees from the United States and NATO that Kyiv would not be allowed to join the military alliance.

Adding to tensions, Belarus’ foreign ministry on Thursday summoned Ukraine’s ambassador to protest over the launch of a military drone which Minsk says crossed its border on Jan. 24 from Ukraine to spy on a military training facility.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry described the move as a provocation and said Ukraine had not used any drones.