Ukraine crisis: Belarus says joint drills with Russia to continue 'due to border tensions'

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By Euronews  with AFP, AP
This photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, shows an intercontinental ballistic missile being launched during drills.
This photo taken from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022, shows an intercontinental ballistic missile being launched during drills.   -   Copyright  Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Belarus has announced that its joint military exercises with Russia, which were due to end on Sunday, will now continue because of the aggravated tensions in neighbouring Ukraine.

It means that Russian forces will remain in Belarus amid heightened tensions with the West, despite Moscow's promise that its forces would leave the country after the drills which began on February 10.

The presence of a large contingent of Russian troops in Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north, has raised concern that they could be used to sweep down on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko and Russia's Vladimir Putin decided "to continue testing the response forces of the union state", Defence Minister Viktor Khrenin said on Sunday.

Khrenin cited "the increase in military activity near the external borders of the union state and the aggravation of the situation in Donbas" — the region of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russia separatists.

According to Minsk, the aim of the exercises remains "to assure an adequate response and a de-escalation of military preparations led by ill-intentioned people near the borders".

The announcement came shortly before French President Emmanuel Macron began a phone call with Putin, in what is seen as a last-minute diplomatic effort to try to avoid a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

It came the day after Lukashenko joined Putin at the Kremlin to observe Russian forces conduct nuclear drills.

The exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya denounced the Russian troop extension as a threat to her country's sovereignty.

"The presence of Russian troops on our territory violates our constitution and international law, and endangers the security of each Belarusian citizen and the whole region," she said in a statement, demanding the "immediate withdrawal" of Russian forces.

Tsikhanouskaya said Belarus risked becoming swept into "another country's war and transformed into an aggressor", and blamed Lukashenko for having "paid for Kremlin support" with her country's sovereignty.

She called for the matter to be raised at the UN Security Council and for new sanctions against Minsk.

Despite a previous statement announcing a military retreat, Russia is accused of massing 150,000 troops along Ukraine's borders to plan an invasion of the country. Washington has claimed that Moscow is looking for a pretext to do so, and that a spike in violence in the east could provide one.

Russia and Belarus have tight cooperation under an alliance referred to as the Union State, which stops short of the countries’ actual integration.