Russian President Vladimir Putin was heading to Belarus on Monday, stoking Ukrainian fears he would try to pressure his ally to join a new offensive as Russian drones attacked Kiev in the latest assault on critical infrastructure, Ukrainian officials said.
Kiev officials have been warning for months that neighboring Belarus could join Russian forces and serve as a launching pad for a new ground attack on the Ukrainian capital.
“Protecting our border, both with Russia and Belarus, is our constant priority,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said after a meeting Sunday of Ukraine’s military high command. “We are preparing for all possible defense scenarios.”
Putin was heading to Belarus on Monday for his first visit in three-and-a-half years, which the Kremlin describes as a “working visit” with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Belarus, one of Russia’s closest allies, allowed its territory to be used as a launching pad for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, but has not directly joined the fighting. Lukashenko has repeatedly said he has no intention of sending his country’s troops to Ukraine.
Russian troops who moved to Belarus in October will conduct tactical battalion exercises, Russian news agency Interfax reported, citing the Russian Defense Ministry.
It was not immediately clear when and where the last of a series of recent exercises will be held in Belarus.
On Monday, Russian aircraft attacked “critical infrastructure” in and around Kiev, Ukrainian authorities said. Air defense systems destroyed 15 of the 20 drones targeting the capital. Private homes in the Kiev region were also damaged, according to its governor.
“Air defense systems are operational in the region,” Oleksiy Kuleba said on Telegram. “Stay in shelters and safe places until the alarm passes. Take care of yourselves and your loved ones.”
Several loud explosions were heard, but it was not immediately clear whether they were air defense systems destroying the drones or drones hitting their targets.
Electricity provider YASNO reported that emergency power cuts had been reintroduced in Kiev following the attacks.
On Sunday, Zelenskiy again called on Western countries to beef up Ukraine’s air defenses after weeks of Russian airstrikes on the country’s energy grid in the dead of winter.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and forced millions from their homes.
Zelenskiy told Ukrainians that the armed forces were standing firm in the city of Bakhmut, the scene of the country’s fiercest fighting for many weeks, as Russia tries to advance in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
“The battlefield of Bajmut is critical,” he said. “We control the city even though the occupiers are doing everything they can so that no wall is left standing.”
Denis Pushilin, Russia’s appointed administrator of the Moscow-controlled part of the Donetsk region, said Ukrainian forces shelled a hospital in the city of Donetsk, killing one person and wounding several others.
Reuters was unable to independently verify these reports on the battlefield.
Putin sees Russia’s “special military operation” as a watershed moment when Moscow finally confronted a Western bloc, led by the United States, that sought to capitalize on the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 by destroying Russia.
Kiev and the West claim that Putin has no justification whatsoever for what they have denounced as an imperialist occupation war that has resulted in Russia now controlling about a fifth of Ukraine.