Putin reinforces military, security bonds with Belarus at Minsk meeting

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko talk during their meeting in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Dec. 19, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko talk during their meeting in Minsk, Belarus, Dec. 19, 2022.

Sputnik/Kremlin/Pool/AP

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top advisers visited Minsk, the Belarusian capital.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been speculation that Belarus would send its troops to fight alongside Russia. But until now, there have been no Belarusian boots on the ground. The Minsk meeting raises new questions about the role Belarus may play in the war in Ukraine.

“The visit was very significant in the sense that it was very symbolic for Alexander Lukashenko, the ruler of Belarus,” said Katia Glod, a Belarus analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Putin has met with Belarusian leader Alexander Lushenko at least six times over the last 10 months, but yesterday was Putin’s first visit to Minsk since 2019.

At a press conference on Monday, Putin said that Russia and Belarus continue to work closely, including in defense and national security. He also said that joint military training is ongoing. And Lukashenko said that without Russian support, Belarus is incapable of defending its sovereignty.

“For Lukashenko, it was important to regain his agency, to show that, ‘Look, everyone is saying that Belarus is a satellite to Russia, but no, Putin is actually coming to me.’ Probably the visit was more for Lukashenko to boost up his support,” Glod said.

Leading up to the meeting, Glod said that analysts considered two potential developments: First, that Belarus could join Russia’s war effort against Ukraine with boots on the ground; and second, that Belarus may be folded into the Russian federation and lose any semblance of sovereignty.

Neither has been confirmed, but Ukraine’s military leaders are preparing for the worst.

Last week, Ukraine's top general, Valery Zaluzhniy, said that Russia is preparing 200,000 troops for a major offensive that could come from the east, south or from the Belarusian border in the north.

Defense analyst Konrad Muzyka said that there’s already military cooperation going on between Russia and Belarus.

“They provide the terrain from which attacks on Ukraine happen,” Muzyka said. “Now, Belarus serves as a staging ground from which Iranian drones are sent from Belarus, to target areas in Kyiv, and also Russians use Belarusian air space to launch air attacks.”

Muzyka said that Belarus is also providing Russia with medical supplies, artillery and even training. And they’re conducting military exercises.

“Since April, May, we’ve noticed that the scale of Belarusian military activity is incredibly high — it’s the highest since the end of the Cold War — the Belarusian armed forces haven't left training ranges, they are training constantly,” Muzyka said.

Belarus has the ability to deploy between 15,000-18,000 men who are ready to undertake military operations, Muzyka added.

Ukraine is paying close attention since Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, is just 60 miles from the Belarusian border.

For the last 10 months, Lukashenko has likely been resisting sending Belarusian troops to fight in Ukraine, Muzyka said, but it has become more difficult for Lukashenko to stand up to Putin.

Whether that next step is sending Belarusians to fight in Ukraine, or further integrating the Belarusian state into the Russian fold, the Minsk visit gave Putin the chance to show that he’s the one calling the shots.

Related: North Korea-Russia relations are warming up amid war in Ukraine

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