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Minsk, Moscow Announce Joint Military Drills As NATO Prepares To Discuss Russian Troop Buildup.

Belarus has announced joint military exercises with Russia along its southern border as NATO gathers for a meeting to discuss its concerns about the Russian troop buildup near Ukraine.

Belarusian Defense Minister Viktar Khrenin said on November 21 that the exercises would be held on its border with Ukraine in the "medium term."

He did not provide a date for the exercises with Russia, but suggested they were in response to alleged new military deployments in countries to the west and south of Belarus.

"We see troop formations around our state borders.... We can only be concerned by the militarization of our neighboring countries, which is why we are forced to plan measures in response," Khrenin said in comments on his ministry's website.

NATO has deployed four international battle groups to defend Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia since 2017.

The battalion-sized units were deployed in response to Russia's illegal seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and Russia's support for separatists fighting against Kyiv's forces in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow has denied planning to invade the Baltics or Poland, but has raised alarms among NATO members by assembling a large number of troops near Russia's western border with Ukraine.

Commenting on his meeting with Latvian President Egils Levits in Riga ahead of a November 30 NATO foreign ministers meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Russia to be "transparent, reduce tensions, and deescalate."

Stoltenberg has previously warned of "consequences" if Russia chooses to use force against Ukraine, and has been meeting with officials in Latvia and Lithuania to discuss an ongoing migrant crisis along the two countries' respective borders with Belarus that is seen as part of a "hybrid" threat against EU and NATO states.

On November 29, Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka clearly suggested that the country would join its ally, Russia, in the event the simmering conflict in Ukraine broke out into open warfare.

"It is clear whose side Belarus will be on," he said of Russia, which has provided financial and political support to Lukashenka amid ongoing protests against the longtime leader's disputed presidential victory in August 2020.

The same day, Lukashenka also discussed the situation by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to the Kremlin, and gave orders to raise troop readiness.

Lithuania has said that NATO needs to adjust its stance toward Mink as Belarus's military becomes more integrated with Russia's.

Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks, meanwhile, said on November 29 that the Baltic NATO member needed a permanent U.S. military presence to boost its defenses.

"We need additional international assistance," Pabriks told Reuters. "We would like to have a permanent United States [military] presence in our country. And sea and air defense means basically going down to such systems as Patriot," U.S. surface-to-air missiles.

In Kyiv, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told foreign media on November 29 that Russia had amassed 115,000 troops and heavy weapons near his country's border, on the occupied territory of Crimea, and in parts of the two eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine occupied by the separatists.

"It's better to act now, not later" to "deter Russia," Kuleba said. "What we are seeing is very serious."

"If Russia decides to undertake a military operation, things will happen in literally the blink of an eye," he said, adding that Ukrainian forces were stronger today than they were when the separatist conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people began in 2014.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to arrive in Riga late on November 29 to attend the NATO foreign ministers meeting.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP

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