Russian President Vladimir Putin has welcomed Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko’s proposal to hold another round of joint military drills.

Putin, who met with Lukashenko in St Petersburg on December 29, said the military exercises would be held in February or March in Belarus.

The announcement comes amid a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine that has raised Western fears of an invasion. Some officials in Ukraine have voiced concern that Russia may also attack its northern flank from Belarusian territory.

Russia denies intending to attack Ukraine, instead accusing Kyiv and NATO of provocations.

Russia regularly conducts military drills with Belarus, the last large-scale one being a war game in September involving 200,000 troops.

Lukashenko has leaned on ally Russia for support amid rising tensions with the West over his crackdown on the country’s pro-democracy movement in the wake of a disputed presidential election in August 2020.

Meanwhile, Moscow has staunchly backed Lukashenko in the face of Western sanctions against his regime. Minsk has responded to the pressure by flying in migrants from the Middle East and funneling them to the EU’s eastern borders in what Brussels says is a form of “hybrid warfare.”

The December 29 meeting is just the latest in a series between the two leaders since last year’s election that has seen the countries deepen a union agreement envisaging close political, economic, and military ties.

In recent weeks, Moscow has repeatedly sent nuclear-capable bombers on patrol over Belarus. On December 28, Russian and Belarusian fighter jets jointly patrolled Belarus’s air space.

Last month, Lukashenko said that his country would be willing to host Russian nuclear weapons if NATO moves similar US equipment from Germany to Eastern Europe.

In an interview on November 30, Lukashenko also recognised for the first time Moscow-occupied Crimea as part of Russia, adding that he planned to visit the Ukrainian peninsula with Putin.

Earlier last month, Putin and Lukashenko approved a joint military doctrine along with a series of agreements on integration programmes focused mainly on economic and regulatory issues.

The documents deepen integration as part of a decades-old plan to create a union state, but there has been less movement on issues surrounding political integration.