Russia to boost forces near EU and help Belarus resist western pressure

Moscow warns US to expect ‘uncomfortable’ signals before Putin-Biden summit

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/Pool/EPA

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/Pool/EPA

 

Russia has pledged to help autocratic Belarus resist growing pressure from the European Union and United States, and announced plans to beef up its military in western regions amid rising tension with EU and Nato states.

Moscow has backed Belarus through its brutal crackdown on critics of its president Alexander Lukashenko and following its decision on May 23rd to press a Ryanair plane to land at Minsk airport, where journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich was arrested with his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega.

The EU has taken measures in response against the Belarusian air transport sector and is preparing economic sanctions in tandem with the US, while also offering Belarus €3 billion in assistance if it moves peacefully to democracy.

Russia confirmed over the weekend that it would soon send Belarus the next $500 million (€409 million) tranche of $1.5 billion in agreed loans, and denounced the West’s response to the Ryanair incident as “emotional” and “hasty”.

Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday his country would “definitely” provide more support to Belarus, its partner in a so-called union state through which Moscow wants to deepen integration between the two countries.

“The measures and solutions that we are working on should not be revealed before our adversaries because it will weaken our position,” he added.

Uncomfortable signals

A day after US president Joe Biden said he would tackle Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over human rights issues when they meet in Geneva on June 16th, Mr Ryabkov said “the Americans must assume that a number of signals from Moscow ... will be uncomfortable for them, including in the coming days”.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Europe was “experiencing an unprecedented crisis of trust. Dividing lines are emerging in Europe again. They are moving eastwards and getting deeper, as if they were frontline trenches.”

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu announced plans to boost the country’s military strength near its western borders in response to what he said was intensifying Nato activity close to the area.

“Our western colleagues’ actions are ruining the world security system and forcing us to take appropriate measures,” he said on Monday.

“We are constantly improving the troops’ combat structure. About 20 military formations and units will be set up in the western military district by the end of the year ... and about 2,000 weapon systems are planned to be delivered to the district’s troops.”

Conflict fears

The EU, US and Nato accused the Kremlin in April of sending large numbers of troops towards war-torn eastern Ukraine and into Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, fuelling fresh fears of all-out conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Those concerns eased when Russia returned many of those soldiers to base, but Moscow and western capitals are now strongly at odds over Belarus, where several people died, hundreds were hurt and more than 30,000 detained during a violent police response to huge opposition protests last summer and autumn.

Western officials have described Belarus’s actions towards the Ryanair plane as “hijacking” and “piracy”, and have urged Mr Lukashenko to free Mr Protasevich (26), Ms Sapega (23) and more than 400 other political prisoners from jail.