Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Belarus on Monday along with his defense and foreign ministers, fanning fears in Kyiv that he intends to pressure his ex-Soviet ally to join a fresh ground offensive that would open a new front against Ukraine.
Putin, whose troops have been driven back in Ukraine’s north, northeast and south since invading in February, is taking a more public role in the war. He visited his operation headquarters on Friday to sound out military commanders.
His trip for talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was his first to Minsk since 2019 – before the COVID pandemic and a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2020 that Lukashenko crushed with strong support from the Kremlin.
Russian forces used Belarus as a launch pad for their abortive attack on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in February, and there has been Russian and Belarusian military activity there for months.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that Belarus was Russia’s “number one ally” but that suggestions Moscow aims to pressure Minsk into joining what it calls its “special military operation” were “stupid and unfounded fabrications.”
Ukrainian joint forces commander Serhiy Nayev had said he believed the talks would address “further aggression against Ukraine and the broader involvement of the Belarusian armed forces in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, also on the ground.”
Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhniy, told the Economist last week that Russia was preparing 200,000 fresh troops for a major offensive that could come from the east, south or even from Belarus as early as January, but more likely in spring.
Moscow and Minsk have set up a joint military unit in Belarus and held numerous exercises. Three Russian warplanes and an airborne early warning and control aircraft were deployed to Belarus last week.
But Lukashenko, a pariah in the West who relies heavily on Moscow for support, has repeatedly said Belarus will not enter the war in Ukraine. Foreign diplomats say committing Belarusian troops would be deeply unpopular at home.
Already, Western sanctions have made it hard for Belarus to ship potash fertilizers, its top export, via Baltic ports.
Western military analysts say Lukashenko’s small army lacks the strength and combat experience to make a big difference – but that by forcing Ukraine to commit forces to its north it could leave it more exposed to Russian assaults elsewhere.
The Pentagon said on Dec. 13 that it did not see “any type of impending cross-border activity by Belarus at this time.”
Putin’s visit was announced on Friday after a surprise Dec. 3 trip to Belarus by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, where he signed an agreement with his Belarusian counterpart whose details were not disclosed.
Adding to the ominous mood music, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, one of the few officials in Lukashenko’s government with any rapport with the West, died suddenly last month. No official cause of death was announced.
His successor, Sergei Aleinik, met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday.
Lukashenko said he and Putin would discuss a long-running effort to integrate their respective former Soviet republics in a supranational Union State. The talks are seen by the Belarus opposition as a vehicle for a creeping Russian annexation.
Belarus’s state news agency, BelTA, said they would answer questions from reporters after their talks.
At a government meeting after the talks with Putin were announced, Lukashenko unexpectedly said that any ceding of sovereignty would be a betrayal of the Belarusian people.
“Particularly after these large-scale negotiations, everyone will say: ‘That’s it, there are no longer any authorities in Belarus, the Russians are already walking around and running the country’,” Lukashenko said.
“I want to again underline this in particular: No one other than us runs Belarus.”
He said he would discuss economic cooperation, energy supplies, defense and security with Putin.
Russian agencies quoted Peskov as saying “no one is pressuring anyone to integrate.”