Alexander Lukashenko may join Vladimir Putin at strategic nuclear drills, one day after offering to host nuclear weapons in Belarus to “defend our country”.
The annual strategic Grom drills of nuclear-capable missiles will take place on Saturday “under the supervision of Russian armed forces supreme commander-in-chief, Vladimir Putin”, Russia’s defence ministry has said in a statement. “Ballistic and cruise missiles will be launched in its course.”
Western countries remain concerned over Russia’s troop buildup on the Ukraine border. Russia has deployed up to 30,000 soldiers, tanks, artillery and ballistic missile systems to Belarus for joint exercises.
At a Kremlin summit on Friday, Putin said that he and Lukashenko, who met the Russian president at a much closer proximity than German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, this week, would be attending a “major military cooperation event” on Saturday.
“We’re going to be at an interesting event tomorrow,” Lukashenko said while discussing ongoing military exercises.
“And we’ll be participating,” Putin interjected. “We’ll actively take part.”
The Kremlin did not confirm whether they meant the nuclear drills, saying only: “If they decide to be there together, then they will be there together.”
The surprise announcement came as the two men were expected to discuss the fate of the Russian troops sent to the Allied Resolve military training exercises concluding on Saturday.
Western officials have warned that the military drills in Belarus could be cover for preparations for an invasion of Ukraine and a possible attack on Kyiv. Another option is that Russia could leave its troops in Belarus, creating a permanent threat on Ukraine’s border.
Satellite imagery has shown Russian armour and artillery within miles of the Belarus border with Ukraine, and western officials have pointed out unusual military activity such as the construction of a pontoon bridge over the Pripyat river in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
The Russian-backed separatist states in east Ukraine on Friday announced a mass evacuation, stoking fears that Moscow is seeking a pretext to launch an intervention.
Russian officials have pledged that the troops will leave Belarus after the exercises conclude. But in contradictory remarks, Lukashenko on Thursday said: “If it makes sense to keep Russian troops here, we will keep them as long as necessary. I emphasise once again: this is our territory and this decision is up to us.”
The two men did not address questions of whether the troops would leave after 19 February. But Putin did say that the “active phase of [the exercises] will last in Belarus until 20 February,” perhaps indicating that a withdrawal would not take place immediately.
Lukashenko also said that he would be ready to host Russian nuclear weapons “in order to defend our territory”. He has also said he wants to obtain Russian Iskander missile systems that could deliver strikes against countries in Europe.
Moscow has so far agreed to neither.
Permanently stationing Russian troops in the country would be a controversial decision in Belarus. Many Belarusians, even supporters of Lukashenko, do not want to see further integration with Russia and would view a large Russian military presence as an occupation.
Lukashenko has resisted efforts to integrate his economy and politics with Russia under a union state plan but increasingly needs Russia’s financial and diplomatic support in his own standoff with the west.
The Russian troops in Belarus are some of the most concerning to western analysts because they have been sent thousands of miles from Russia’s eastern military district.
Thomas Bullock, a senior analyst at the defence intelligence provider Janes, said that the troops were among the Russian units that would have to withdraw in order for Russia to meaningfully decrease tensions.
“You want to see those long-distance journeys being pulled back,” he said.
Rochan Consulting has estimated that Russia has sent 50-70% of the eastern military district’s combat potential to Belarus. Units include armour, artillery, Spetsnaz special forces, engineering brigades, Iskander ballistic missile battalions, SU-35 fighters, paratroopers and anti-aircraft systems.
Western governments had warned that Russia was planning to hold the strategic nuclear drills this month, rather than in late summer as is customary.
The Russian drills would “involve forces and hardware belonging to the aerospace forces, the southern military district, the strategic missile forces, the northern fleet, and the Black Sea fleet”, the defence ministry said.
The Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Putin would take part in the exercise from a defence ministry operations centre. “Even test launches of this type are impossible without the head of state,” he told reporters. “You all know about his famed ‘black briefcase’, ‘the red button’ and so on.”
The exercise would “check the preparedness of military commands and crews of missile systems, warships and strategic bombers to accomplish their missions and at verifying the reliability of weapons of strategic nuclear and conventional forces”, the ministry said.