Source: Robert Besser

MOSCOW, Russia: Highlighting its close defense ties with Belarus amid tensions with the West, Russia sent two Tu-22M3 strategic strike bombers to patrol the skies over Belarus on December 18.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the two nuclear-capable long-range bombers practiced “performing joint tasks with the Belarusian air force and air defense.”

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The four-hour patrol marked Russia’s third mission in Belarus since last month, taking place amid Western concerns over a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s border.

Moscow has denied planning to invade Ukraine and asked the United States for security guarantees that would prevent NATO from expanding into Ukraine or deploying weapons there.

The U.S. and its allies have rejected Moscow’s demands.

Some Ukrainian officials worry that Russia may use Belarus as a base for attacking their country from the north. Amid his own tensions with the European Union, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said last month that his country would be ready to again host Russian nuclear weapons.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has described Lukashenko’s offer as a “serious warning prompted by the reckless Western policy.”

Belarus’ top diplomat, Vladimir Makei, seconded Lukashenko’s statement in an interview released Saturday. He said Belarus could agree to host nuclear weapons as part of its response to possible NATO activities in Poland.

Echoing Russian concerns about growing ties between Ukraine and NATO, Makei said the Western military alliance was turning Ukraine into a “bridgehead against Russia.”