In Moscow-allied Belarus, officers look out across a snowy training ground outside the capital Minsk as Russian and Soviet-era tanks fire into the distance.
Painted in white camouflage, a brand new Russian BTR-82A tank and a modernised Soviet tank send echoes booming around the field as they shoot.
The tanks are driven by cadets from an elite academy that turns young Belarusians into officers.
The army in Belarus, an isolated country of around 9.5 million people, showed AFP the combat training and the main military academy on an organised tour.
Fears have grown that Minsk, which allowed Moscow to use its territory to send troops to Ukraine last year, could also enter the conflict.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, said on Thursday he would be ready to wage war alongside Russia if Belarus was attacked on its soil. He also accused Kyiv of provocations.
At the firing range, cadets, whose uniforms and helmets featured the red-and-green Belarusian flag, took part in various combat simulations.
They also practised evacuating the wounded, dragging a pretend injured soldier across the snow.
At the end of last year Belarus and Russia announced the creation of a unified response force, with several thousand Russian servicemen arriving in the country.
In a rare meeting with the international press on Thursday, Lukashenko said he asked his Russian ally Vladimir Putin for an extra division that would fall under his command.
He gave no further details and travelled to Moscow the next day.
At the firing range, colonel Maxim Zhuravlev said the academy was training “future defenders of the motherland”.
“Today, we are studying the experience from all modern conflicts in the world,” he said.
“From this we are taking what is new and making it part of the education process.”
Officials on the tour toed a careful line and did not want to discuss Belarus’s role in Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine.
– ‘Threat of war’ –
Fears over a Russian-style mobilisation have grown in the authoritarian country, which has largely been cut off from the West due to sanctions.
Lukashenko said he does not “plan to send my people” over the southern border but stressed the need to be prepared for war.
“If we see a threat of war, we will conduct mobilisation,” the strongman said, adding that Belarus was learning from Russian “mistakes”.
If Belarus had to call up reservists, “it would be better than in Russia”, Lukashenko claimed, mostly because Belarus is far smaller.
In the military academy’s classroom on the outskirts of Minsk, officers oversaw conscripts simulate combat on computers.
Officials said it was part of a “unit of information technologies”, programming for the nation’s army. Lukashenko this month called for the IT unit to be strengthened.
Minsk used to be an IT haven, but many specialists have fled the country following a massive crackdown on the opposition following Lukashenko’s disputed re-election in 2020.
“Stand!” an officer said as he entered the room, with uniformed conscripts rising from their computers simultaneously.
In another room, trainee pilots took orders from air traffic controllers in simulated flights.
The academy featured Soviet and Belarusian symbols, heavy on World War Two history and patriotism.
“Knowing military history helps to promote tactical thinking,” one officer said.
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