Russia, Belarus hold joint military exercises

By YURAS KARMANAU,Associated Press Writer - Wednesday, September 30

MINSK, Belarus - Russia and Belarus on Tuesday completed two days of massive joint military exercises on bases that are close to borders with NATO members.

Officials said about 12,500 servicemen took part in the West-2009 exercises, roughly half from each country, in Russia's westernmost Kaliningrad region, which borders NATO members Poland and Lithuania, and in southern Belarus about 75 miles (125 kilometers) from the Polish border.

The exercises involved aircraft, armor and other heavy weapons.

Russia resents NATO's eastern spread into countries that were once Soviet republics or satellite states. But Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who attended the drills with Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, said the exercises this week were strictly defensive.

"They were aimed to help develop our armed forces and protect our nations," Medvedev said after the maneuvers.

Nonetheless, analysts and opposition figures in both countries saw them as anti-West.

Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian military analyst, said they were directed "at NATO and the Americans, the Baltic states and the Poles and all the other enemies."

"These exercises are taking place near Poland on the border with NATO, and that creates nervousness and separates Belarus from Europe, not bringing it closer," said Anatoly Lebedko, leader of Belarus' opposition United Civil Party.

The authoritarian Lukashenko once aimed to bring his country into union with Russia, but a series of disputes with Moscow have frozen those plans.

In recent months Belarus has made tentative efforts to improve relations with the West. But Belarus still relies on its giant neighbor for military supplies and protection.

Medvedev said he and Lukashenko agreed to hold such military exercises every two years.

Associated Press Writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.



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