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Putin and Lukashenko discuss integrating Russia and Belarus

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Vladimir Putin is meeting with Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko in the Kremlin on Thursday as the two discuss negotiations to integrate their countries’ economies and government policies before massive joint military exercises.

Ahead of the talks, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov said that no documents were expected to be signed, signalling that the isolated Lukashenko continues to resist pressure from Moscow to concede control over government policy in exchange for Russian support.

“I asked you to come to summarise the results of what’s been done recently in creating the programme of the Union State,” Putin said as the talks opened on Thursday, referring to a decision to further integrate the countries that has stalled since it was first agreed in principle in 1999.

“We are moving forward like civilised countries, only together, only as a union … nearly a single people,” said Lukashenko in a rhetorical flourish. But on concrete agreements he said that discussions would probably lead to further intra-governmental consultations and that a programme may not be adopted until October or later.

Nonetheless, there were signs of growing military cooperation between the countries.

Ahead of his fifth meeting with Putin this year, Lukashenko said he hoped to buy a large shipment of weapons, including combat jets and helicopters, as well as the advanced S-400 air defence weapons. Belarus also claimed that Moscow had moved Su-30 fighters to Belarus in order to patrol the country’s borders with Europe.

Moscow said it is also ready to provide a new loan to Belarus’ authoritarian leader, who has largely been isolated by the west after jailing his main political opponents and launching a brutal crackdown on the opposition following mass protests last year.

The Kremlin was thought to be leveraging that isolation to pressure Lukashenko into finalising a number of integration projects that would draw Belarus far closer to Russia politically, militarily and economically, even binding the countries with a shared currency.

Yet Lukashenko has stalled on implementing the agreements, which were drawn up as part of a 1999 Union State treaty, recognising that they would undermine his position and hand Belarusian sovereignty over to Moscow. A Belarusian ambassador had said that the two sides may sign the agreements on Thursday evening, state media reported. But similar predictions have fallen flat before.

The meeting comes just days before the start of the Zapad-2021 military exercises, in which an estimated tens of thousands of Belarusian and Russian troops will participate in planned manoeuvres on Europe’s borders. Moscow has claimed that as many as 200,000 troops were taking part in the training, but that number was believed to be inflated.

The exercises, which are held every four years, usually simulate a conflict between Nato and a Russian-led alliance. The 2017 drills were met with considerable alarm in the west, where there were concerns that the exercises could serve to justify a military buildup on Nato’s borders. The response to the 2021 drills, which were set to be held from 10-16 September, has been more muted, although European countries along the Belarusian border have heightened security precautions, in part due to a migrant crisis fomented by the Belarusian leader.

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