MINSK Russian military ally Belarus will ask Moscow to deploy 12 to 15 warplanes on its territory in response to increased NATO activity near its borders due to tension over Ukraine, President Alexander Lukashenko said on Wednesday.
The United States and Poland, Belarus's western neighbor, began war games on Tuesday that are expected to involve at least 12 U.S. F-16 fighter jets. A joint naval exercise of U.S., Bulgarian and Romanian naval forces in the Black Sea started on Wednesday.
The drills were planned before the crisis in Ukraine but underscore support for NATO nations near Russia, which has taken control of Ukraine's Crimea region and has warned it could invade to protect Russians there after the president's ouster.
"We reacted calmly until large-scale exercises began ... in Poland," Lukashenko said. "There is a clear escalation of the situation near our borders."
He said Belarus would ask Russia to send "no more than 12 to 15 planes", indicating that the request had been made under a clause of a "union treaty" signed by the close Slavic nations after the Soviet Union's collapse.
"Send them to Belarus, determine their patrol routes," Lukashenko said. "Let them work, let them patrol."
The Russian Defence Ministry could not immediately be reached for comment.
Belarus serves as a buffer between Russia and NATO and is one of Moscow's closest allies. Lukashenko relies on political and economic support from Moscow, but relations are often tense and he has said little about the crisis in Ukraine.
Russia uses a Soviet-era early-warning radar station in Belarus and has supplied its neighbor with weapons including air defence missile batteries. The two nations have been in talks about putting a Russian air base in Belarus.
(Reporting by Andrei Makhovsky; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alistair Lyon)