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Putin in Belarus, eyeing next steps in Ukraine war

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rare trip Monday to Moscow’s ally Belarus as his forces pursued their campaign to bombard Ukraine from the air amid a broad battlefield stalemate almost 10 months into the war.

Putin’s visit to Minsk came hours after Russia’s latest drone attack on Ukraine. Moscow has been targeting Ukraine’s power grid since October as part of a strategy to deprive the country of heat and power during winter.

His brief trip could herald more military support for the Kremlin war effort, after Belarus provided Russia with a launching pad for the invasion of Ukraine last February.

Putin said he and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko discussed forming “a single defense space” in the region but rejected claims that Moscow was poised to swallow its neighbor.

“Russia isn’t interested in any kind of merger, it’s not feasible,” Putin said.

Putin said that he supported Lukashenko’s proposal to train the crews of Belarusian warplanes that already have been modified for using special warheads — a reference to nuclear weapons.

Earlier this year, Russia and Belarus have announced a plan to modernize Belarusian aircraft to make them nuclear-capable. Lukashenko said Belarusian crews have been training with Russia to operate those planes modified to carry nuclear weapons.

Lukashenko thanked Putin for providing his military with Iskander short range missiles and S-400 air defense systems. He also said the countries agreed to continue hold joint military exercises.

Belarus is believed to have Soviet-era weapons stockpiles that could be useful for Moscow. Lukashenko, meanwhile, needs help with his country’s ailing economy. It was a rare trip to Minsk by Putin, who usually receives Lukashenko in Russia.

Moscow has kept up its war effort despite Western sanctions and the supply of Western air defense systems to Ukrainian forces.

Sitting beside Lukashenko, Putin emphasized their close military-technical ties. He said they include not only mutual supplies of equipment but also joint work in high-tech military industries.

Analysts say the Kremlin might be seeking some kind of Belarusian military support for its Ukraine operations. But the winter weather and Russia’s depleted resources mean any big Russian attack probably won’t come soon, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington.

“The capacity of the Russian military, even reinforced by elements of the Belarusian armed forces, to prepare and conduct effective large-scale mechanized offensive operations in the next few months remains questionable,” it said in an assessment published Sunday.

It concluded that “it is unlikely that Lukashenko will commit the Belarusian military (which would also have to be re-equipped) to the invasion of Ukraine.”

In Ukraine, multiple explosive drones attacked the capital before dawn. The attack came three days after what Ukrainian officials described as one of Russia’s biggest assaults on Kyiv since the war started.

Russia launched 23 self-exploding drones over Kyiv while the city slept, but Ukrainian forces shot down 18 of them, the Kyiv city administration said on Telegram. No major casualties were reported from the attack, although the Ukrainian president’s office said the war killed at least three civilians and wounded 11 elsewhere in the country between Sunday and Monday.

Source: Associated Press

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