- Kyiv sees Putin pressuring Lukashenko to open a new war front
- Lukashenko has ruled it out but is deeply dependent on Moscow
- Putin assumes a more public role in the faltering Ukraine war
Dec 19 (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Belarus on Monday along with his defense and foreign ministers, stoking fears in Kyiv that he is trying to pressure its former Soviet ally into joining a new ground offensive that would open a new front against Ukraine. .
Putin, whose troops have been driven out of northern, northeastern and southern Ukraine since the invasion in February, is taking a more public role in the war. He visited his operation headquarters on Friday to canvass 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 Kremlin support.
Russian forces used Belarus as a launching pad for their failed 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 Moscow’s suggestions to pressure Minsk to join what it calls its “special military operation ” were “stupid and baseless fabrications”.
The commander of the joint forces of Ukraine, Serhiy Nayev, said that he believed that the talks would address “further aggression against Ukraine and the broader participation of the armed forces of Belarus in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, also on the terrain”.
Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhniy, told The Economist last week that Russia was preparing 200,000 new troops for a major offensive that could come from the east, south or even Belarus in January, but probably in the spring.
Moscow and Minsk established a joint military unit in Belarus and conducted numerous exercises. Three Russian fighter jets and an airborne early warning and control plane were deployed to Belarus last week.
But Lukashenko, a pariah in the West who relies heavily on Moscow for support, has repeatedly said that Belarus will not enter the war in Ukraine. Foreign diplomats say committing Belarusian troops would be deeply unpopular at home.
Western sanctions have already made it difficult for Belarus to ship potash fertilizers, its main export, through Baltic ports.
Western military analysts say Lukashenko’s small army lacks the strength and combat experience to make much of a difference, but forcing Ukraine to send forces north could leave it more exposed to Russian attacks elsewhere.
The Pentagon said on December 13 that it did not see “any type of imminent cross-border activity by Belarus at this time.”
Putin’s visit was announced on Friday after a surprise trip to Belarus by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Dec. 3, where he signed an agreement with his Belarusian counterpart whose details were not disclosed.
Adding to the ominous background music, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, one of the few Lukashenko government officials with any ties to the West, died suddenly last month. The official cause of death was not announced.
His successor, Sergei Aleinik, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday.
Lukashenko said he and Putin would discuss a long-term effort to integrate their respective former Soviet republics into a supranational State of the Union. The talks are seen by the Belarusian opposition as a vehicle for progressive Russian annexation.
Belarus’ state news agency BelTA said it would answer journalists’ questions 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 authorities in Belarus anymore, the Russians are already walking and running the country,'” Lukashenko said.
“I want to underline this in particular again: nobody but us runs Belarus.”
He said he would discuss economic cooperation, energy supply, defense and security with Putin.
Russian news agencies quoted Peskov as saying “no one is putting pressure on anyone to join.”
Written by Tom Balmforth and Kevin Liffey; Edited by Tomasz Janowski and Mark Heinrich
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