Shortly after the telephone conversation between Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Lukashenko in Minsk on December 3.
The meeting raised new fears among Western analysts and news outlets that Lukashenko was leaning heavily toward Putin to join the war.
Two key takeaways from their meeting were: 1. Lukashenko made a public statement for the first time indicating that Belarus was training Russian soldiers on Belarusian territory; 2. Immediately after landing, Shoigu signed amendments to the security and defense part of the Russian-Belarusian Union State Treaty.
The meeting had two goals. On the one hand, the meeting aims to put psychological pressure on Ukraine by raising alarm in the entire Ukrainian society. On the other hand, it is a way to push Belarus into action. Although everyone knows that Russia is pressuring Belarus to join the war, there are still no signs of a Belarusian invasion of Ukraine in the near future.
Shoigu and Lukashenko could also discuss increasing arms transfers from Belarus. Since June, Belarus has been a major supplier of tanks, weapons and ammunition to Russia.
The Commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine commented on the event “At the moment, there are no signs that Belarus and Russia are preparing for another invasion attempt from Belarusian territory, to date the situation in the Northern Operational Zone is under control. But the accumulation of allied troops continues on the territory of Belarus. Therefore, we are constantly monitoring we are preparing our forces for an adequate response to this situation. There is no threat from Belarus yet.”
A similar statement was made by the spokesman of the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. The Ministry of Defense expects an intensification of combat training in Belarus, as the new year will bring new rounds of exercises for the Belarusian troops. However, the Ministry of Defense stated that it does not see “any signs of the creation of any powerful strike group on the territory of Belarus.”
Throughout this year, there have been numerous fears that Belarus will enter the war directly by sending troops to Ukraine. Since February 24, Belarus independently conducted several military exercises, welcomed thousands of Russian recruits and increasingly facilitated Russian missile attacks on Ukraine from its territory.
In all these cases, Western and Ukrainian special services and analysts were concerned that Belarus might be preparing for a new offensive on Ukraine’s northern border together with Russia.
Belarus adds to the problem by constantly issuing contradictory statements, threatening Ukraine with war (and even nuclear war) in some cases, and in other cases assuring everyone that Belarus would never attack Ukraine.
On November 25, a division of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine issued a public warning that Russia and Belarus are conducting a psychological operation against Ukraine. According to the Ministry of Defense, this was done specifically through anonymous accounts that posted photos and messages detailing how an invasion from Belarus would soon take place, preceded by an intense missile attack.
At the end of November, a discrepancy arose between the assessments of Ukraine and its allies regarding the Belarusian threat.
On November 20, the Ukrainian military intelligence announced that Russia was planning a false flag operation against a Belarusian nuclear power plant (NPP) located near the Lithuanian border. This claim was refuted by Lithuania’s chief national security adviser, who stated that Lithuania does not have any information about a possible false flag operation against the Belarusian nuclear power plant.
On November 22, the adviser to the President of Ukraine, Oleksiy Arestovych, said that Russia is seriously considering the possibility of an invasion from Belarus. However, he was quickly contradicted by Ukrainian military expert Oleg Zhdanov, and other recent statements by Ukrainian officials do not support his case.
The current Belarusian threat
While a renewed invasion attempt may not be imminent, Belarus still poses a military and general security threat in the short, medium and long term, both to its Alliance neighbors and to Ukraine itself. Moreover, Lukashenka had to concede a lot to Putin this year; while the Belarusian economy has become almost inseparable from Russia’s, Lukashenko has also lost Belarus’ defense and security policy to the Kremlin.
However, as many analysts previously noted, Lukashenko does not plan to relinquish control over his army. This is due to the fact that without the army, Lukashenko may not be able to stay in power.
Belarus is closely monitoring the negative reaction of Russians to Putin’s decree on mobilization. In the last couple of months, more and more Belarusian men have been called to their local military commissars. According to the Ukrainian intelligence, the Belarusian KGB security service is conducting covert “soft mobilization” in order to test the population’s reaction to a possible general mobilization order.
Although there was no mass exodus of Belarusians, people still leave the country every day to avoid political repression. Moreover, there were reports that Belarusians were not showing up for their military commissariats, and anti-war sentiment was still high among the Belarusian military and the general population.
The General Staff of Ukraine previously estimated that Belarus has perhaps 15,000 military personnel who would be ready to go to war against Ukraine because of a high monetary reward; not quite the necessary amount for the new strike force to plan to recapture fortified Ukrainian positions. In addition, the report of the Ukrainian General Staff of November 27 concluded that Russia is preparing to transfer part of its troops, which are currently stationed in Belarus, to the eastern front of Ukraine.
Zelensky said that he does not see a desire among Belarusians to go to war against Ukraine, a desire that was probably also noted by Lukashenko and Putin.
Putin already has Lukashenko exactly where he wants him, and while he may want to help Belarus in the war, he probably fears creating further political instability in the country. Rather than the updated invasion plan, Shoigu and Lukashenko likely discussed further economic and political integration, as well as further material support from Belarus for Russia’s military effort.
Since Russia began its invasion, Belarus has supplied Russia with everything from ammunition and uniforms to various forms of military equipment. In October alone, Russia received 98 T-72A battle tanks from Belarus. In addition, some reports even claim that agricultural machinery manufacturer Gomselmash may use some of its Russian-provided loans to repair Russian military equipment.
So far, there are no signs that Lukashenko is disobeying the Kremlin. Nevertheless, the slow modification of the Belarusian economy towards becoming an industrial powerhouse, mainly aimed at supplying products and equipment for the Russian military effort, is not close to optimal development for Lukashenko.
No one knows what may happen in early 2023. Putin has not given up the idea of another push towards Kyiv, and the easiest way for this is through Belarus.