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Russia ups defense ties with Belarus amid tensions with NATO

Russia ups defense ties with Belarus amid tensions with NATO

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's defense chief on Wednesday voiced concern about a buildup of NATO forces near the country's borders, and called for stronger defense ties with neighboring Belarus.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu noted recent efforts to boost military cooperation between the two allies, including modernization of military infrastructure for shared use.

After a meeting of the two countries' military top brass, Shoigu said he and his Belarusian counterpart extended agreements on two Russian military facilities in Belarus — an early warning radar in the Brest region near Poland and a naval communications center in Vileyka near the Belarusian capital of Minsk. He didn't specify for how long they were extended.

Russia and Belarus have a union agreement envisaging close political, economic and military ties. Moscow has staunchly backed Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko amid Western sanctions triggered by Belarusian authorities' crackdown on protests following his re-election to a sixth term in an August 2020. Belarus' opposition and the West rejected the election as a sham.

In a bid to secure more Kremlin support, Lukashenko has repeatedly described Belarus as a bulwark against the West and called for boosting defense ties with Russia.

Russia's relations with the U.S. and its NATO allies have sunk to post-Cold War lows after Moscow's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and support for a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Earlier this month, NATO withdrew the accreditation of eight Russian officials to its Brussels headquarters, saying it believed they had been secretly working for Russian intelligence. Russia responded Monday by suspending its mission at NATO and ordering the closure of the alliance’s office in Moscow.

Moscow has repeatedly voiced concerns over the deployment of NATO forces near Russian borders, describing it as a threat to its security. Russia and the alliance also have blamed each other for conducting destabilizing military exercises near the borders.

Shoigu charged Wednesday that dozens of NATO drills near Russia's borders have been used to rehearse scenarios of military confrontation with Russia. He specifically voiced concern about a buildup of NATO troops in Poland and the Baltics, the deployment of U.S. missile defense facilities in Romania and Poland and the modernization of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.

The Russian defense minister emphasized that NATO's activities make “a coordinated defense policy, cooperation in the development of armed forces, an increase in coordination and combat training and a shared use of military infrastructure particularly acute for Russia and Belarus.”