Dec 19 (Reuters) –
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart and close ally extolled the benefits of cooperation after Putin visited Minsk for the first time since 2019, hardly mentioning the war raging in nearby Ukraine at a joint news conference.
Russian forces used Belarus as a launch pad for their abortive attack on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in February, and there has been Russian and Belarusian military activity there for months.
Ukrainian joint forces commander Serhiy Nayev had said he believed the Minsk talks would address “further aggression against Ukraine and the broader involvement of the Belarusian armed forces in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, also on the ground.”
But none of the journalists invited to speak asked Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – who has repeatedly said his country will not be drawn into Ukraine – about the war.
They in turn devoted their answers to the ever-closer economic and defense alignment between their two former Soviet states – already formally allied in a somewhat nebulous “Union” – and to the excitement of Sunday’s World Cup soccer final in Qatar.
Belarus’s political opposition, largely driven into jail, exile or silence, fears a creeping Russian annexation or “absorption” of its much smaller Slavic neighbor. Both Putin and Lukashenko were at pains to dismiss the idea.
“Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone,” Putin said. “There is simply no expediency in this.”
Lukashenko, at one point calling Putin an “older brother,” praised Russia as a friend that had “held out its hand to us,” providing Belarus with oil and gas at discounted prices.
“Russia can manage without us, but we can’t (manage) without Russia,” he said.
Belarus’s veteran leader said the two countries had agreed a new price for supplies of Russian gas, but declined to specify what it was before his government had discussed it.
(Writing by Tom Balmforth and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Tomasz Janowski and Mark Heinrich)