MP. Cannes, October 10, 2022
Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko has ordered troops to deploy with Russian forces near Ukraine in response to what he says is a clear threat to Belarus from Kyiv and its backers in the West.
The remarks from Lukashenko, who has held power in Belarus since 1994, indicate a potential further escalation of the war in Ukraine, possibly with a combined Russian-Belarus joint force in the north of Ukraine.
He has recently stated that he would only deploy in defense, but a session with Putin over the weekend in St Petersburg appears to have clarified his thought processes.
“We have been preparing for this for decades. If necessary, we will respond,” Lukashenko said.
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Lukashenko said he had agreed with Putin to deploy a regional military group, and had started pulling forces together two days ago, apparently after an attack on Russia’s road and rail bridge to Crimea early on Saturday.
Lukashenko said that a warning was delivered to Belarus through unofficial channels that Ukraine planned “Crimean Bridge 2”, though he did not give details.
“My answer was simple: ‘Tell the president of Ukraine and the other lunatics: if they touch one metre of our territory then the Crimean Bridge will seem to them like a walk in the park’.”
Belarus’s army has about 60,000 people. Earlier this year, Belarus deployed 6 battalion-tactical groups, totalling several thousand people, to the border areas. On Sunday, the head of Belarus’s border guards accused Ukraine of provocations at the border.
Russian forces used Belarus as a staging post for their Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, sending troops and equipment into northern Ukraine from bases in Belarus.
In rambling remarks reported by the state news agency Belta, Mr. Lukashenko said that work had already started on the formation of what he called a “joint regional group of troops” to counter “possible aggression against our country” by NATO and Ukraine.
The New York Times reports that the Belarusian strongman, who has so far resisted pressure from Moscow to send in his own troops, accused Ukraine, which shares a long border with Belarus, of planning attacks from the south, without citing evidence.
“Ukraine doesn’t pose a threat to Belarus. It’s a lie,” Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a Belarusian opposition leader, said. “I urge the Belarusian military: don’t follow criminal orders, refuse to participate in Putin’s war against our neighbors.”
Statements by Mr. Lukashenko, an eccentric and highly erratic dictator, are rarely an accurate guide to current or future events. Just days before Russian troops stationed in Belarus attacked Ukraine in February, he emphatically denied that his territory would be used by Russia, a close ally, to attack his country’s southern neighbour.
The establishment of a joint force with Russia will reinforce the view in Ukraine that Belarus is clearly a “co-aggressor,” a label that Mr. Lukashenko has rejected but which took on new force on Monday after a barrage of Russian missile attacks on Kyiv and elsewhere, some of them launched from Belarusian territory, according to Ukrainian officials.
He gave no details on Monday of the size or precise purpose of the new joint force, stirring speculation that Belarus might send troops into Ukraine to help Russia’s flailing military campaign. Alternatively, he could be preparing his country for the arrival of thousands of freshly drafted Russian soldiers, some of them former convicts and many of whom are ill-trained.
“Be ready to receive these people in the near future and place them where necessary, according to our plan,” Mr. Lukashenko told his military chiefs.
During his visit to St Petersburg, Belarusian state media reported that Mr. Lukashenko had “stressed the need to take measures in case of the deployment of nuclear weapons in Poland,” a remark that some analysts interpreted as preparing the ground for the possible deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus, something that he has long said would never happen.
Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst now in exile in Warsaw, said Mr. Lukashenko would likely try to resist deploying his own troops in Ukraine because that “would be so dangerous for him on so many levels. It would be catastrophic politically.”
But, Mr. Shraibman added, “it is clear that what is left of his autonomy is eroding as we speak.”
Heavily dependent on Moscow for money, fuel and security assistance, all vital to his own survival after 28 years in power, Mr. Lukashenko is widely believed to be under growing Russian pressure to get more involved in the Ukraine war.
Russia massed tens of thousands of troops in Belarus before its February invasion and used Belarusian territory as a staging ground for its initial, unsuccessful assault on Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Moscow still has hundreds of troops in Belarus, from which it launches missiles and bombing raids, but their number is now expected to increase sharply.
Andrei Sannikov, who served as deputy foreign minister under Mr. Lukashenko during his early period in power but fled into exile after being jailed, said Mr. Lukashenko was “running scared,” caught between pressure from Russia to help its demoralised forces in Ukraine and the knowledge that sending in Belarusian troops would be hugely unpopular, even among his loyalists.
He predicted that ultimately “his boots will inevitably be on the ground in Ukraine” because Mr. Lukashenko “has no real choice. He is not taking decisions on the war. Putin takes all the decisions and tells Lukashenko what to do,” Mr. Sannikov said.