Belarus leader reviews joint Russian military drills, touts $1 billion arms deals

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko reviewed on Sunday large joint military drills with Russia and said his country planned to buy more than $1 billion worth of arms from Moscow.

The live fire drills are the culmination of the "Zapad-2021" war games, and will run until next Thursday on Russia's and Belarus's western flanks. Some sites are close to NATO and the European Union's borders, and their proximity has unsettled neighbours including Ukraine and Poland.

Close ties between ex-Soviet Minsk and Moscow helped Lukashenko weather the largest mass protests of his 27-year rule last year, and Russia has also supported him in the face of ongoing sanctions from Western powers which accuse him of rigging elections in August 2020 and cracking down on the opposition. Lukashenko has denied rigging the vote.

"This is one of the most important training events for the armed forces, which takes place against the backdrop of ongoing hybrid aggression by the West against Belarus and Russia," Lukashenko was quoted by the Belta news agency as saying.

An image published by Belta showed Lukashenko in green military uniform watching the drills at Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground.

Lukashenko also said Belarus planned to buy Russian arms worth more than $1 billion and was negotiating supplies of S-400 air defence missile systems.

Neighbours such as Ukraine and NATO members Poland and Lithuania say such big exercises, involving 200,000 troops, so close to the frontier risk being provocative and look aggressive.

Russian President Vladimir Putin denies the drills are directed against any foreign power and says they are sensible given increased NATO activity near Russia's borders and those of its allies.

Russia's Defence Ministry said the troops would return to their permanent bases by mid-October.

Putin is expected to review the drills next week.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; Editing by Tom Balmforth and Raissa Kasolowsky)