With Russia ties under strain, Belarus holds drills with British Marines

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus began holding joint military drills with 28 British Marines at a training ground in the north of the country this week at a time when relations with its traditional ally Russia are under strain.

The Belarus defense ministry has stated that the drills, which will run from March 2-14, are similar to events that have been held regularly with Britain for the past two years.

But they come as President Alexander Lukashenko has accused Moscow of trying to bully his country into merging with Russia by using oil supplies, loans and subsidies as leverage.

The United States and the European Union have been frequent critics of Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule and human rights record in Belarus, where he has held power since 1994.

But ties improved after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula that Belarus refused to recognize. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February became the most senior U.S. official to visit Belarus in more than two decades.

The joint drills with Britain “cannot be considered outside of the political context,” political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky said. “The Belarusian leadership knows how Moscow reacts painfully to such things.”

“Lukashenko is simply showing Moscow once again that there are plenty more fish in the sea and that he has alternatives.”

Tensions between Minsk and Moscow heightened since January 1, when they failed to agree on oil delivery terms and major Russian oil companies suspended pipeline supplies to Belarus.

Lukashenko had been a critic of NATO for most of his rule until the Crimea annexation.

Minsk discussed cooperation with NATO during Pompeo’s visit and the Belarusian defense ministry has said it was considering joint military exercises with NATO.

In December, Lukashenko even said that he hoped for NATO to intercede if Russia threatened the sovereignty of Belarus.

Editing by Matthias Williams, Editing by William Maclean