MOSCOW (AP) — Russia sent a pair of long-range nuclear-capable bombers on patrol over its ally Belarus on Saturday amid growing tensions over Ukraine.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the two Tu-22M3 bombers trained to interact with the Belarusian air force and air defense during a four-hour mission. The flight followed several similar patrols over Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north.
The mission came as the Kremlin moved troops from Siberia and the Far East to Belarus for large-scale joint exercises. The deployment added to Russian military buildup near Ukraine, fueling Western fears of a possible invasion.
Russia has denied any plans to attack Ukraine, but has urged the United States and its allies to pledge not to accept Ukraine into NATO, not to deploy offensive weapons and to cancel NATO deployments in Eastern Europe. Washington and NATO have rejected the demands.
The West called on Russia to withdraw around 100,000 troops from areas near Ukraine, but the Kremlin responded by saying it would station troops wherever it needed them on Russian territory. As tensions over Ukraine soared, the Russian military launched a series of war games stretching from the Arctic to the Black Sea.
The deployment of Russian troops in Belarus has raised fears in the West that Moscow could stage an attack on Ukraine from the north. The Ukrainian capital of Kiev is only 75 kilometers (50 miles) from the Belarusian border.
In recent months, Russia has conducted a series of joint exercises with Belarus and repeatedly sent its nuclear-capable long-range bombers to patrol over Belarus, which borders Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, members of NATO.
Belarusian authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, who has increasingly relied on political and financial support from the Kremlin amid deadly Western sanctions triggered by his crackdown on domestic protests, has called for closer defense ties with Moscow and recently offered to host Russian nuclear weapons.
In an interview with a Russian state television host aired on Saturday, Lukashenko blamed the Russian-led security alliance for demonstrating its ability to deploy quickly when its members briefly sent forces last month to Kazakhstan to help stabilize the situation after deadly riots.
“While they (NATO) are still preparing to send troops here, we will already be standing at the Channel, and they know it,” he said in reference to Western allies.
The Belarusian leader played down the threat of war, but added that if it breaks out again, “it will last three or four days at most”.
“There is no one to fight us,” he said of Ukraine.
On Saturday, German newspaper Bild published a report alleging that Russia is poised to attack Ukraine from multiple directions, capture major cities and install a puppet government. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova angrily dismissed the allegations.
As war fears mounted, Ukrainian authorities launched a series of civil defense drills for residents.
“I’m here to learn how to defend myself, my loved ones and also to understand how to act in the situation,” Kyiv resident Ilya Goncharov said after taking part in exercises on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital. “I’m glad I came here to learn the basics of self-defense and first aid.”
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city just 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of the Russian border, thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday carrying giant yellow and blue banners in the colors of the national flag in a show of determination to protect the city.
“We want to show that there are people in Kharkiv who are ready to defend it and fight back,” said walker Svitlana Galashko.
Amid the standoff over Ukraine, US President Joe Biden has sent 2,000 US-based troops to Poland and Germany and transferred another 1,000 from Germany to Romania, demonstrating states’ commitment united towards NATO’s eastern flank.
Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled that Moscow was ready to continue talks with Washington and its NATO allies. As part of high-level diplomacy to ease tensions, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to visit Moscow and Kyiv on Monday and Tuesday, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will visit Kyiv and Moscow on May 14-15. February.
On Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had a call with Macron and “they agreed that finding a diplomatic solution to the current tensions must remain the top priority”.
Johnson’s office said he and the French president “also stressed that NATO must be united in the face of Russian aggression” and “agreed to continue working together to develop a set of sanctions that would take effect immediately.” if Russia invades Ukraine further.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also spoke to European Council President Charles Michel on Saturday, saying on Twitter that tensions around the situation in Ukraine must be defused.
In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula after Ukraine’s pro-Moscow leader fled the country. Russia has also backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where more than 14,000 people have been killed in the fighting.
Amid tensions with the West, Putin attended the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on Friday and met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to bolster the two countries’ alliance. In a joint statement, Putin and Xi declared their opposition to any enlargement of NATO while affirming that the island of Taiwan is part of China.
Putin and Xi announced that relations between Moscow and Beijing are “superior to Cold War-era political and military alliances” and that their friendship “knows no bounds”.
Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.