Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko urged closer military cooperation with Russia on Monday, Dec. 19, during a rare visit from President Vladimir Putin, who launched his invasion of Ukraine from his neighbor's territory.
Putin landed in Minsk with his defense and foreign minister in tow, hours after Russian forces launched a swarm of attack drones at critical infrastructure in Kyiv, which provoked emergency blackouts in a dozen regions.
"Difficult times require us to have political will and to focus on getting results on all topics of the bilateral agenda," Lukashenko told Putin.
"The main issues lately have been defence and security issues," he added.
The Kremlin has for years sought to deepen integration with Belarus, which relies on Moscow for cheap oil and loans, but Lukashenko had resisted outright unification with Russia despite being a key ally.
Speculation mounted ahead of the Russian leader's visit that he would pressure Lukashenko to send troops to Ukraine to fight alongside the Russians after Moscow suffered a string of defeats in nearly 10 months of fighting.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, dismissed the reports "as totally stupid, groundless fabrications."
- 'Open for dialogue' -
"Russia and Belarus are open for dialogue with other states, including European ones. I hope that soon they will listen to the voice of reason," Lukashenko said.
Putin told his Belarusian ally that he hoped to deepen economic ties between the countries during the visit and praised Belarus as "our ally in the truest sense of the word".
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The drone attacks over Ukraine, which wounded three people near Kyiv, came as Russia said it shot down several US-made missiles over its airspace near Ukraine.
"I first heard the air raid siren... I thought there is going to be a drone attack. For the first time, it scared me," Natalia Dobrovolska, a 68-year-old resident of Kyiv, told AFP.
She described hearing multiple explosions before power shut off in her building in western Kyiv. Officials said Russia had dispatched 35 attack drones nationwide, including 23 over Kyiv.
Ukraine said it downed 30 of the aerial weapons, including Iranian-made "Shaheds", which have pummeled the capital in recent weeks.
Mayor Vitali Klitschko said critical infrastructure facilities were "damaged" while regional authorities said nine homes had been scarred by the attacks.
Energy operator Ukrenergo announced that emergency electricity outages were scheduled in the capital and nearly a dozen regions.
- Belarus border a 'priority' -
Ukraine has experienced frequent and deadly aerial attacks in the 10 months since Russia invaded in late February.
After a series of battlefield setbacks and territory lost this summer and autumn, Moscow stepped up its aerial campaign to target the country's energy grid.
With winter setting in, missile and drone attacks have plunged cities around the country into darkness, and severed water and heat supplies to millions of Ukrainians.
Speaking to the leaders of several NATO countries via video link on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelensky urged Ukraine's allies to supply its military with more weapons.
"Russian aggression can and must fail. And our task now is to accelerate it," he told the leaders assembled in Riga.
He said in a late-night address Sunday that some nine million people had their electricity restored after Russia's previous missile barrage last week.
Ukraine has an estimated population of 40 million.
Before Putin's visit, Ukraine's leader also described the situation on Ukraine's border with Russia and Belarus as a "constant priority".
"We are preparing for all possible defense scenarios," Zelensky said.
Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, is a long-time Kremlin ally and allowed Russian troops to attack Ukraine from his country on February 24.
- Russian-Belarusian military drills -
Hours before Putin touched down in Minsk, Russia announced its forces were running military drills with Belarusian forces.
The defense ministry released footage of drills in Belarus, showing soldiers conducting tank manoeuvres, and practising artillery and sniper fire at a snow-dusted training ground.
"From the morning until the evening twilight -- there is not a single second of silence at the training grounds of Belarus," the ministry said.
It did not say where the drills were taking place or how long they would last.
In October, Belarus announced the formation of a joint regional force with Moscow with several thousand Russian servicemen arriving in the ex-Soviet country, fueling concerns Minsk could also send troops to Ukraine.
On Monday, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said Ukrainian strikes left around 14,000 people without power in a district of southern Russia's Belgorod region.
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