KYIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin denied plans to absorb Belarus as he paid on Monday a rare visit to the country whose strongman assisted his invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Putin flew into the capital Minsk with his defense and foreign ministers in tow, hours after Russian forces launched a swarm of attack drones at critical infrastructure in Kyiv, which caused emergency blackouts in a dozen regions.
Putin said Russia and Belarus — slapped with new Western sanctions since President Alexander Lukashenko was declared the winner of a sixth term in 2020 elections widely criticized as fraudulent — were "united by a common history and spiritual values."
Putin called the countries "closest allies and strategic partners," but said rumors that Russia sought to take over Belarus came from "ill-wishers."
"Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone, this would simply make no sense," Putin said.
In Washington, D.C., State Department spokesman Ned Price scoffed at Putin's remarks.
"I think a statement like that has to be treated as the height of irony coming from a leader who is seeking at the present moment — right now — to violently absorb his other, peaceful next-door neighbor," he said. "We have seen the Lukashenko regime essentially cede its sovereignty — cede its independence — to Russia."
Belarus has let Russian forces use its territory and hours before Putin touched down in Minsk, Moscow released footage of drills with Belarusian forces, including tank maneuvers and sniper fire at a snow-dusted training ground.
Lukashenko urged closer military cooperation and said Moscow and Minsk were "open for dialogue with other states, including European ones."
"I hope that soon they will listen to the voice of reason," he said.
Speculation mounted ahead of the Russian leader's visit that he would pressure Lukashenko to send troops to Ukraine to fight alongside the Russians after Moscow suffered a string of defeats in nearly 10 months of fighting.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, however, dismissed the reports "as totally stupid, groundless fabrications."
In October, Belarus announced the formation of a joint regional force with Moscow with several thousand Russian servicemen arriving in the ex-Soviet country.
New explosions near Kyiv
The drone attacks wounded three people near Kyiv. They came as Russia said it shot down several US-made missiles over its airspace near Ukraine.
Ukraine said it downed 30 of the aerial weapons, including Iranian-made "Shaheds," which have pummeled the capital in recent weeks.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said critical infrastructure facilities were damaged while regional authorities said nine homes had been scarred by the attacks.
Ukraine has experienced frequent and deadly aerial attacks. After a series of battlefield setbacks, Moscow stepped up its aerial campaign to target the country's energy grid.
With winter setting in, missile and drone attacks have plunged cities around the country into darkness, and severed water and heat supplies to millions of Ukrainians.
Speaking to the leaders of several North Atlantic Treaty Organization members via video link on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged his country's allies to supply its military with more weapons.
"Russian aggression can and must fail. And our task now is to accelerate it," he told the leaders assembled in Latvia's capital Riga.
He said in a late-night address on Sunday that some 9 million of Ukraine's estimated 40 million people had their electricity restored after Russia's previous missile barrage last week.
Gas price cap
The West has sought to keep the pressure on Russia. European Union ministers, after months of wrangling, decided on Monday on a price gap on Russian natural gas, following an agreement on Russian oil that came into force this month.
The price ceiling on natural gas was fixed at 180 euros per megawatt hour, although the European Commission said it might suspend the cap if "the risks outweigh the benefits" following protracted negotiations involving Germany, the continent's largest economy that backs Ukraine, but is highly dependent on imported energy.
"It wasn't an easy thing to achieve," Maltese Energy Minister Miriam Dalli said.
The Kremlin lashed out at the latest measure, with Peskov saying the cap was "unacceptable" and a violation of market processes.