Putin and Lukashenko to meet after Russia warns of aggression against Belarus

(Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko will meet on Sunday, the Kremlin said, two days after Moscow warned that any aggression against its neighbor and staunchest ally would be considered an attack on Russia.

After Poland decided earlier this week to move military units closer to its border with Belarus in response to the arrival in Belarus of Russian Wagner Group forces, Putin said Moscow would use all means at its disposal to respond to any hostility towards Minsk.

The Kremlin said Lukashenko was on a working visit to Russia and would talk to Putin about further developing the countries’ “strategic partnership”.

Without sending his own troops to Ukraine, Lukashenko allowed Moscow to use Belarusian territory to launch his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and has since met frequently with Putin.

The two countries have since held several joint military training exercises, and in June Lukashenko allowed his country to be used as a base for Russian nuclear weapons, a move widely condemned by the West.

The perception that Lukashenko, an outcast in the West, depended on Putin for his survival had stoked fears in Kiev that Putin was pressuring him to join a new ground offensive and open a new front in Russia’s failing invasion of Ukraine.

On Thursday, the Belarusian Defense Ministry said mercenaries from the Wagner Group had started training Belarusian special forces at a military firing range a few kilometers from the border with NATO member Poland.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was shown in a video welcoming his fighters to Belarus on Wednesday, telling them they would no longer participate in the war in Ukraine for now but ordering them to muster forces for Wagner’s operations in Africa while they train the Belarusian army.

(Reporting by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by Paul Simao)

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