Russia sent two nuclear-capable strategic bombers on a training mission over Belarus on Thursday in a show of Moscow’s support for its ally amid a dispute over migration at the Polish border.
The Belarusian defence ministry said two Russian Tu-160 strategic bombers practised bombing runs at the Ruzhansky firing range in Belarus. As part of the joint training, Belarusian fighter jets simulated an intercept, the ministry said.
The missions marked the second time in two days that Russia has sent nuclear-capable bombers into the skies over Belarus.
A pair of Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers flew a similar patrol on Wednesday, and Belarusian air defence assets practised intercepting them.
The Belarusian defence ministry said that such Russian bomber flights would be conducted on a regular basis.
The Russian military said the bombers spent more than four-and-a-half hours in the air during the mission intended to buttress the countries’ alliance. It noted that the bomber patrol “wasn’t aimed against any third countries”.
Russia has strongly supported Belarus amid a tense standoff this week as thousands of migrants, most of them from the Middle East, gathered on the Belarusian side of the border with Poland in the hope of crossing into Western Europe.
The European Union has accused Belarus’ authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko of encouraging illegal border crossings as a “hybrid attack” to retaliate against EU sanctions on his government for its crackdown on internal dissent after Mr Lukashenko’s disputed 2020 re-election.
Belarus denies the allegations but has said it will no longer stop refugees and migrants from trying to enter the EU.
The Belarusian defence ministry accused Poland on Thursday of an “unprecedented” military build-up on the border, saying that migration control did not warrant the concentration of 15,000 troops backed by tanks, air defence assets and other weapons.
“It looks more like forming a strike group of forces,” the ministry said, adding that the Polish military build-up had prompted Belarus to respond with actions “both independently and within the existing agreements with our strategic ally” – a reference to Russia.
Russia and Belarus have a union agreement envisaging close political and military ties. Mr Lukashenko has stressed the need to boost military co-operation in the face of what he has described as aggressive actions by Nato allies.
Mr Lukashenko called the Russian bomber flights on Thursday a necessary response to the tensions on the Belarus/Poland border.
“Let them scream and squeak. Yes, those are nuclear-capable bombers, but we have no other choice,” the president, who has been in office since 1994, said.
Colonel General Retired Leonid Ivashov, former head of the Russian defence ministry’s foreign co-operation department, said the Russian bomber flights over Belarus were intended to demonstrate Moscow’s support for its ally amid soaring tensions.
“Military drills and bomber flights are part of training for joint action,” Col Gen Ivashov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
“It’s needed to avert a possible military conflict that could escalate into a big war. It’s necessary to demonstrate our readiness.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted the thousands of troops that had been deployed on either side of the Polish/Belarusian border and said “it’s a cause for deep concern of all sober-minded people in Europe”.
Asked about German chancellor Angela Merkel’s request for Mr Putin to exert his influence on Belarus, Mr Peskov responded that “Russia, like all other countries, is trying to help resolve the situation”.