Russian bombers fly over Belarus amid tensions in Ukraine


MOSCOW (AP) – Russia on Saturday sent two long-range nuclear-capable bombers on patrol over its ally Belarus amid rising tensions around Ukraine.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the two Tu-22M3 bombers practiced interacting with the Belarusian air force and air defenses 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 to conduct joint exercises. The operation contributed to Russian military buildup near Ukraine and fueled Western fears of a possible invasion.

Russia has denied any plans to attack Ukraine, but has urged the US and its allies to make a firm commitment not to admit Ukraine to NATO, not to deploy offensive weapons and to roll back NATO operations in Eastern Europe. Washington and NATO have rejected the demands.

The West has urged Russia to withdraw an estimated 100,000 troops from areas near Ukraine, but the Kremlin has responded by saying it will station troops on Russian territory wherever necessary. As tensions around Ukraine mount, the Russian military has launched a series of war games that are spreading from the Arctic to the Black Sea.

The Russian deployment of 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 from the border with Belarus.

In recent months, Russia has conducted a series of joint exercises with Belarus and has repeatedly deployed its long-range, nuclear-capable bombers to patrol the skies over Belarus, which borders NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, increasingly relying on the Kremlin for political and financial support amid bruises on the West by his crackdown on domestic protests, has called for closer defense ties with Moscow and recently offered to host Russian nuclear weapons .

On Saturday, German newspaper Bild published a report claiming that Russia is ready to attack Ukraine from multiple directions, seize major cities and install a puppet government. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova angrily denied the allegations.

As war fears mounted, Ukrainian authorities launched a series of exercises for civilians to prepare for a possible Russian invasion.

“I’m here to learn how to defend myself, defend my relatives, and also understand how to behave in the situation,” Kyiv resident Ilya Goncharov said after attending 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, thousands of people took to the streets with huge yellow and blue banners in the colors of the national flag on Saturday to demonstrate their 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 Svitlana Galashko, one of the participants in the rally.

Amid the standoff over Ukraine, US President Joe Biden has ordered 2,000 US troops to Poland and Germany and moved another 1,000 from Germany to Romania to demonstrate US commitment to NATO’s eastern flank.

Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin signaled Moscow’s willingness to hold further talks with Washington and its NATO allies. As part of high-level diplomacy to ease tensions, French President Emmanuel Macron will travel to Moscow and Kiev on Monday and Tuesday, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will travel to Kiev and Moscow on February 14 and 15.

On Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had a phone call with Macron and “they agreed that finding a diplomatic solution to the current tensions must remain the overriding priority.”

Johnson’s office said he and the French president had “also emphasized the need for NATO to be united in the face of Russian aggression” and “agreed to continue working together to develop a sanctions package that would come into effect immediately should Russia continue to intervene.” should invade Ukraine”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also spoke with European Council President Charles Michel on Saturday and said on Twitter that they discussed the current situation in Ukraine and called for its “de-escalation within all existing formats”.

In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula after toppling its pro-Moscow leader and supported a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that killed over 14,000 people in fighting.

Amid tensions with the West, Putin attended the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Friday and met with China’s leader Xi Jinping to strengthen the two countries’ alliance. In a joint statement, Putin and Xi declared their opposition to NATO expansion while reaffirming that the island of Taiwan is part of China.

Putin and Xi announced that Moscow-Beijing ties are “superior to the political and military alliances of the Cold War era” and their friendship is “without borders.”


Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.


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