TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Statements made this week by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have reignited fears that his army could join Russian forces in Moscow’s war against Ukraine, but the authoritarian leader appears reluctant to lend his troops to the effort, despite perceived pressure from Moscow.
Russia has already used Belarus, its longtime and dependent ally, as a staging ground to send troops and missiles into Ukraine. Analysts say if Belarus’ small and inexperienced military gets involved, the additional troops could help Moscow cut off some key transportation corridors, but likely wouldn’t significantly boost Russian President Vladimir Putin’s capabilities on the battlefield.
“The Belarusian army is weak and demotivated, and it is not willing to fight with Ukraine, which means that Lukashenko will try to give Putin anything but Belarusian soldiers,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “Lukashenko is letting Putin know: ‘I will help, but I won’t fight.'”
Lukashenko announced Monday that he and Putin agreed to create a joint “regional grouping of troops” and that several thousand Russian soldiers will be stationed in Belarus. Lukashenko offered no details about where the troops will be deployed, and Russia’s motives weren’t immediately clear, though the remarks come as Moscow is struggling to replenish troops lost on the battlefield.
Lukashenko also said that Kyiv is plotting to attack Belarus — and he cautioned Ukraine against attacking “even one meter of our territory with their dirty hands.” His defense minister, Viktor Khrenin, also warned Ukraine not to provoke Belarus, saying, “We don’t want to fight” and stressing a day later, however, that the joint force is for defense.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy assured leaders of the Group of Seven industrial powers on Tuesday that Kyiv isn’t planning military actions against Belarus. He said Moscow “is trying to directly draw Belarus into this war.”
Oleksiy Danilov, head of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, told Ukrainian television Tuesday that Belarus is being “held hostage by Russia.”
Fears of Russian pressure on Belarus aren’t unfounded. Lukashenko, an authoritarian leader, has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for 28 years while relying on Russia’s political and economic support. Moscow has pumped billions of dollars into shoring up Lukashenko’s Soviet-style, state-controlled economy with cheap energy and loans. And in 2020, the Kremlin helped Lukashenko survive the largest mass protests in the country’s history, following a presidential election that the opposition and the West denounced as rigged.
Lukashenko has publicly supported Russia’s attack on Ukraine, drawing international criticism and sanctions against Minsk. Still, Lukashenko has repeatedly rejected speculations that Belarus would send its own soldiers to fight alongside Russia.
“Neither the Belarusian elites, nor the population are ready to participate in this incomprehensible war,” Valery Karbalevich, an independent Belarusian analyst, told the AP. Karbalevich said Lukashenko is trying to bargain, offering to keep Russian nuclear weapons on its soil and create the joint force, while also hinting at the weakness of his own army.
Part of Belarus’ 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) border with northwest Ukraine lies only about 90 kilometers (56 miles) north of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. Troops coming from Belarus would likely move west and target cities of Lviv and Lutsk, key transportation hubs for Western military supplies, said Zhdanov, the Ukrainian military analyst.
“It is vital for Russia to cut off the transport corridor, because via Lviv, Western weapons reach the east and the south, where the Ukrainian army is conducting a successful counteroffensive, and this can only be done from Belarus,” Zhdanov said.
However, Lukashenko’s army is relatively small — just 45,000 troops, including conscripts — and largely inexperienced. The Belarusian military holds regular drills, but hasn’t taken part in combat since World War II.
At best, Minsk will be able to deploy 20,000 troops — professional contract soldiers, according to Zhdanov.
Belarusian military analyst Alexander Alesin said Lukashenko can avoid getting involved by saying that his limited troops are needed to defend Belarus’ borders from its neighbors — NATO members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Lukashenko said earlier this year that the Kremlin’s campaign in Ukraine “has dragged on” and even suggested that he could mediate peace talks, insisting on the need to end the war as soon as possible. Kabralevich said Lukashenko understands that Russia is losing the war and he ” is trying to crawl as far away from Russia as he can.”
Lukashenko is also facing public frustration at home, as Belarusians are feeling the effects of crippling Western sanctions and spiking inflation, which is already twice as high as last year.
“After mass protests of 2020, when hundreds of thousands of people demanded that Belarus’ leader step down, Lukashenko is afraid of arming Belarusians. It can provoke another domestic explosion,” Karbalevich said.
And, Alesin said, Belarusians are not mentally prepared to fight Ukrainians.
“Unlike the Russians, Belarusians have absolutely no hostility towards the Ukrainians and don’t understand the point of this special operation. This may lead to mass refusals to comply with orders to shoot Ukrainians,” he said.
Dasha Litvinova contributed to this report.
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