Putin and Lukashenko announce more joint manouevres as Kyiv warns of potential new invasion from north
Vladimir Putin is met by Alexander Lukashenko after arriving in Minsk on Monday. Photograph: Sputnik/Reuters
Vladimir Putin has discussed closer military cooperation with his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, during a rare visit to the country, as fears grow in Kyiv that Moscow is pushing its closest ally to join a new ground offensive against Ukraine.
The meeting, which was Putin’s first visit to Belarus since 2019, came hours after Moscow launched a fresh barrage of “kamikaze drones” that damaged “key infrastructure” in and around Kyiv, according to the mayor, Vitali Klitschko.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Minsk late Monday, the two leaders said that they agreed to continue a series of joint military drills that have caused alarm in Ukraine.
“We agreed to continue to take all necessary measures together to ensure the security of our two countries. To give priority to the training of troops, increase their combat readiness … and continue the practice of regular joint exercises and other operational and combat training activities,” Putin said.
Lukashenko called Russia “his closest ally and strategic partner” and said that Belarus could not protect its “independence alone”.
The Kremlin has for years strived to deepen integration with Belarus, which heavily relies on Moscow for discounted oil and loans. Lukashenko has previously resisted outright unification with Russia despite the country’s growing isolation from the west after his brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2020.
Putin on Monday said he did not want to “absorb” anyone and accused unspecified “enemies” of trying to stop Russia’s integration with Belarus.
The press conference came on the back of a warning by senior Ukrainian officials and military commanders that Russia may try another attempt at invading the country from the north.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on Sunday that Ukraine was ready for “all possible defence scenarios” against Moscow and its ally.
“Protecting our border, both with Russia and Belarus, is our constant priority,” Zelenskiy said after a meeting with Ukraine’s top military command. “We are preparing for all possible defence scenarios.”
Lukashenko has previously allowed the Kremlin to use his country as a platform to send tens of thousands of Russian troops into Ukraine, while Russian war jets have taken off from Belarusian bases.
But Lukashenko has not joined the war directly or sent his own troops into the fight, at times even subtly criticising the invasion, saying he felt the conflict was “dragging on”.
A series of military drills held with Russia on Belarus’s border over the last month have once again raised fears that Belarus is about to enter the fray.
Hours before Putin’s visit, the Belarusian defence ministry announced the completion of the latest snap military drills, which Lukashenko had ordered to check the “combat readiness” of the nation’s army.
“Putin’s visit to Minsk could indicate that Putin is trying to set conditions for … a renewed offensive against Ukraine – possibly against northern Ukraine or Kyiv – in winter 2023,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US-based thinktank, said in a report last week.
Experts remain sceptical about the chance of Belarusian troops, considered relatively weak, entering Ukraine, even if Putin is pushing for it. Some analysts have proposed that Lukashenko’s recent manoeuvres were a ploy designed by Moscow to tie up Ukrainian forces near the border to prevent their deployment to other areas.
“Belarusian forces remain extremely unlikely to invade Ukraine without a Russian strike force. It is far from clear that Lukashenko would commit Belarusian forces to fight in Ukraine even alongside Russian troops,” ISW’s report said.
Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst and non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said any direct involvement of Belarus in Ukraine could present a political risk for Lukashenko, who survived a protest movement in 2020.
“Participation in this war would be extremely unpopular: all available polls show that more than 90% of Belarusians do not want to send their army there,” Shraibman said. “And this includes supporters of Lukashenko and the pro-Russia part of society.”
But Shraibman warned that while Lukashenko would try to resist, his position could change in the future. “For now, Putin seems content with everything that Lukashenko has given him. But if he demands direct involvement from Lukashenko in the war, I cannot bet that he will be successful in resisting for ever.”
Zelenskiy on Monday urged western leaders to supply a wide range of weapons systems to his country to end the “Russian aggression”.
“A lot depends on you – how this war will end. The more successful our defence forces are, the faster the Russian aggression will fail,” he said in a video address to the heads of countries in the Joint Expeditionary Force, a UK-led grouping of northern European countries.
“I ask you to increase the possibility of supplying air defence systems to our country, and to help speed up the relevant decisions to be taken by our partners,” Zelenskiy said, addressing the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak.
Zelenskiy went on to address several European leaders directly, asking, among others, Norway to supply more Nasams launchers, Denmark to transfer Caesar howitzers, and Lithuania to send Nasams as well as Stinger missiles.