MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin has personally presided over the large-scale Zapad-2021 military drill, conducted by the Russian and Belarusian armies.

Both countries are strengthening their military ties, developing a first joint training and combat center on Belarusian territory as that country’s relations with the West have deteriorated.

Putin arrived in Mulino, a military training ground near the city of Nizhniy Novgorod south of Moscow, on Sept. 13 to watch a tank maneuver segment of the exercise series.

The Russian Defense Ministry, which described the exercise as “strategic,” stated that more than 200,000 troops from both countries are taking part in the drill, conducted on Russian and Belarusian territories. The ministry also said that 80 military jets and helicopters and more than 760 units of various military equipment are part of the drill.

The military drills between Russia and its only European ally, Belarus, which neighbors NATO member Poland, are held on a regular basis.

But the new drill comes with the development of a Russian-Belarusian joint military training center in Baranovichi airfield, near the capital of Minsk. The site is slated to focus on joint training of anti-aircraft and air-force units of both forces. The Belorussian Defense Ministry said that several Russian Su-30СМ jets have arrived “to establish” a joint center.

The Russian planes will not be permanently based on Belarusian territory, officials said, but the head of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies think tank, Ruslan Pukhov, described the center as a “proto-base.”

“The Russian side wants closer military cooperation, but Alexander Lukashenko [the Belarusian president] understands that any Russian basing will influence the internal political situation, and he doesn’t want the Russian presence to be permanent,” he told Defense News.

Russia currently has two military structures in Belarus: the Volga early warning station near Baranovichi city and Vileika Naval communication center, connecting the Russian chief of staff with the atomic submarines in the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

Lukashenko, an authoritarian leader dependent on Moscow for energy, has early openly criticized any Russian military presence on Belarusian soil. In 2018 he stated bluntly that Belarus doesn’t need a base on its territory, citing security reasons. “Why expose ourselves to the attack of a possible aggressor, pushing the air force base to the front line,” he said at that time.

But the development of joint military-training center on Belarusian territory comes soon after a meeting between Lukashenkо and Putin in Moscow last week. Both leaders have agreed to facilitate the development of the Russian-Belarussian economic union.

Lukashenko has promised his Russian counterpart to sign 28 road maps, bringing both countries’ economic systems closer by October. A political integration might follow, as Putin didn’t exclude a creation of joint union parliament in the future.

The Belarusian strongman is seen moving closer to Russia amid souring relations with the West after he jailed a number of high-profile opposition leaders.

“Russia squeezes Lukashenko, who before that was able to maneuver quite successfully,” Pukhov said.

The chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, Fyodor Lukyanov, a Kremlin-connected expert, wrote in a Profil magazine column that the “idea of placing a military base in Belarus should be actively welcomed – not for protection from NATO, but in order to bring relations with Minsk into an understandable and stable form.”

Alexander Bratersky is the Russia correspondent at Defense News. He has covered U.S.-Russian relations, NATO and Middle Eastern affairs, and Russian policy in Syria. He previously worked at the Moscow Times and Izvestia as a political reporter, as well as RIA Novosti as a Washington correspondent. He also dabbles in stand-up comedy.

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