Russia and Belarus have started major joint drills near their western borders involving dozens of military aircraft and warships, hundreds of tanks and some 200,000 troops after agreeing to deepen integration of their economies and energy markets.
Veteran Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has leaned heavily on Moscow's support since the biggest opposition protests of his 27-year rule erupted last summer. He claimed they were part of a western-backed plot to oust him and put pressure on Russian president Vladimir Putin's regime.
Mr Lukashenko has accused Belarus's western neighbours – EU and Nato members Poland and the Baltic states – of posing a security threat to his country, and this week Russia sent Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets to Belarus to form a joint air-defence training centre.
Critics of Mr Lukashenko say he could undermine Belarus’s sovereignty by allowing Moscow to dramatically increase its influence on the country’s economic, political and security life in exchange for Kremlin support for his autocratic rule.
The Russian and Belarusian governments announced on Friday that they had approved 28 “road maps” on deeper co-operation between the two countries as part of their “union state”, which has developed slowly since its formation in 1999.
The ministers met a day after Mr Putin and Mr Lukashenko held talks in Moscow and agreed to move towards shared monetary policies, customs and taxation rules and to unify their energy markets. The governments also announced on Friday that the neighbouring states would form a common agricultural policy.
Belarusian prime minister Roman Golovchenko said on Friday: "Today, we made a very important step towards creating a unified economic space from Minsk to Vladivostok by 2024. We approved the main guidelines to implement the union state treaty for 2021-2023 and 28 union state programmes.
“The implementation of these programmes, in our opinion, will give a powerful impetus to mutual trade, to the development of joint ventures and coordinated measures to support national producers,” he added.
Russian premier Mikhail Mishustin dismissed the fears of critics that the union state would lead to Belarus being "swallowed" by its huge eastern neighbour.
“Of course, it is necessary to form a single area based on the principles of openness, transparency and mutual trust . . . while fully preserving the sovereignty of our states,” he said.
Having played off Russia and the West against each other for many years, Mr Lukashenko aligned Belarus entirely with Moscow after claiming victory in rigged presidential elections last August and launching a brutal crackdown on protests in which several people died, hundreds were hurt and more than 35,000 detained.
Mr Putin said he and Mr Lukashenko also discussed “building a single defence space and ensuring the security of the union state at its outer perimeter”, but insisted that the “Zapad” (West) war games “are not aimed at anyone”.