MOSCOW (AP) — Belarus' authoritarian president said Monday that the ex-Soviet nation will form a new territorial defense force amid the fighting in neighboring Ukraine.
President Alexander Lukashenko has cultivated close military ties with Russia, which used Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine nearly a year ago at the start of what the Kremlin calls its "special military operation." Russia also has maintained about 10,000 troops in Belarus and the two countries have regularly conducted joint drills as part of their military alliance.
Speaking during a meeting with officials Monday, Lukashenko said the country needs to form paramilitary units in every town or village to serve as territorial defense to complement the country's 45,000 military "in case of aggression." He added that every Belarusian man must learn how to handle weapons "to protect his family and home" if needed.
Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said Belarus will form a force of up to 150,000 volunteers who will be given weapons but keep their civilian jobs. He noted that its members will form a military reserve in peacetime and could act as guerrillas in case of war.
While hailing the importance of defense cooperation with Russia and expressing support for the Kremlin's action in Ukraine, Lukashenko has emphasized that he will only send Belarusian troops into Ukraine if his country is attacked.
The Kremlin has staunchly backed Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for nearly three decades, helping him weather months of massive protests triggered by his re-election in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West denounced as rigged.