Putin In Belarus: Is Lukashenko Ready To Enter The Ukraine War?
Five days after Minsk's troops began amassing at the Belarus-Ukraine border, Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived for an impromptu summit with Alexander Lukashenko. Belarus' strongman is increasingly seen as no longer having the option to say No to entering Putin's war against Ukraine.
This article has been updated on Dec. 19, 2022 at 4:40 p.m. CET with news developments
Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Belarus on Monday, raising concerns that he had come to seal the country's leader Alexander Lukashenko's commitment to join the war against Ukraine.
International observers said the objective of Putin's visit — his first to the country since 2019 — is to push Belarus to send troops across the border into Ukraine, which he's so far avoided doing, despite allowing Russia to launch air and ground attacks from its territory.
Ahead of his meeting with Putin, Lukashenko said that the country would decide for itself if it would go to war – but there were signs last week that he was preparing to help out. On Dec. 13, Belarusian troops began rapidly deploying to the Ukrainian border and the country’s defense ministry announced a “sudden inspection of combat readiness.”
The inspection finished just before Putin landed in Minsk on Monday, the Belarusian government said, as Russian media reported that troops stationed in Belarus had been ordered to start military exercises.
Over the past week, the Belaruski Gayun media has recorded increasing numbers of troops massing on the border with Ukraine.
Though such sudden exercises have occurred at other times since the beginning of the war, this time it comes amid an accumulation of signs that point to Lukashenko preparing to give final orders. Putin's visit Monday, which was announced less than 48 hours earlier, appears to confirm movement afoot.
Local witnesses also report Belarusian forces have begun to build pontoon boat crossings across the Berezina river near the border, apparently for the speedy transfer of equipment to Ukraine. In addition, Russian MiG-31K fighters, which can carry hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles, arrived at airbases in Belarus.
Meaning of Makiej’s death
Oleksandr Azarov, the founder of BYPOL, composed of former Belarusian law enforcement officers, believes that Lukashenko has already decided to invade Ukraine.
"I think Makiej did not die by chance,” Azarov said, referring to Vladimir Makiej, Belarus’s Foreign Minister, who died suddenly on Nov. 26 on the eve of his visit to Poland.
“He was going to negotiate guarantees for Lukashenko and his family. Instead, Russian Defense Minister (Sergei) Shoigu comes to Belarus and signs secret military documents. Lukashenko was not allowed to retreat."
The Lukashenko regime has tried in the past to maintain some level of autonomy from Russia. But military and economic reliance on the Kremlin's support multiplied after Belarus’ 2020 elections when the longtime strongman ruler retained the presidency by violently suppressing protests against the rigged voting results.
Lukashenko in a corner
The 68-year-old Lukashenko may prefer to keep the country out of the war, knowing there is minimal support among Belarusians for invading Ukraine. Yet he also knows that not only his political career but his life is ultimately in the hands of Vladimir Putin. And with Ukrainian troops largely outperforming Russians on the front line, Putin appears to need to open up a new front from the north.
Ukrainian military expert Petro Chernyk also believes that the moment for Minsk to enter the war has arrived.
"The sudden check of the combat readiness of the Belarusian army indicates that Russia is raising the stakes. I emphasize that it is Russia, not Belarus. Putin needs Belarus to officially enter the land war with Ukraine now,” says Chernyk, who notes that heavy missile strikes have already been taking place from Belarus. “They are really already at war with us."
It's a question of when, not if.
Tuesday evening the Commander of the Joint Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Lieutenant-General Serhiy Nayev, discussed the situation on the border with Belarus with his colleague from the Operational Command of the Armed Forces of Poland, Lieutenant General Tomasz Piotrowski.
Ukrainian volunteers have also intensified their assistance to the Ukrainian military on the Belarusian border: in recent weeks, the prominent "Come Back Alive" organization has been focusing on helping the Ukrainian Armed Forces coordinate defense measures vis-à-vis Belarus. The head of the foundation, Taras Chmut, estimates the possibility of an attack from Belarus this winter as high.
BYPOL founder Oleksandr Azarov believes that Belarus troops crossing the border is inevitable, a question of when not if. Another sign he cites is the constant psychological manipulation spread by the Belarus regime among the troops: “to convince the military that they should support their ‘Russian brothers.’”
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