Just a few days before Christmas Eve, Putin paid a visit to the Belarusian President, who also presented new military equipment. Belarus is now as closely tied to Russia as it was at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. What role does the country play in Ukraine in the second year of the war?
If you wish a Happy New Year to a Ukrainian friend these days, you sometimes get the answer: “What New Year? For us, 2022 is still going on.” These words convey both the warning that Russia is continuing its aggressive war unabated, most recently in the form of rocket terror against the civilian population, and the unbroken will of the Ukrainians to defend their country by all means – from the Donbas to the Danube Delta and from the Black Sea to Polesia.
The latter refers to the swampy border area between Ukraine and Belarus, the northern neighbor, which has been the focus of attention again for a few weeks. From there, the Russian advance on Kyiv began in February 2022 and rockets have been flying from there ever since – most recently last weekend. Now the question arises as to whether Putin could reopen this northern front in the course of a spring offensive: is he even planning a new storm on Kyiv and would then, unlike before, also actively involve the Belarusian army in the field?
A few days before Christmas Eve, the Russian President paid a visit to Minsk – for the first time in almost four years. On the one hand, this had a symbolic character. Ruler Lukashenko, who had traveled to Putin a total of 14 times since the rigged election in August 2020, was able to present the “return visit” as a touch of equality. On the other hand, the Kremlin ruler showed presence and strength by traveling to the only one of the eight neighboring European countries whose leadership Moscow still counts as an ally.
Two and a half years after the protests were crushed, Belarus has moved closer to Russia than it has since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And in exchange for the Minsk ruler’s political support, Moscow demands allegiance. Various bilateral integration projects were on the agenda – but of course the war was too.
After the talks, it was announced that the joint military exercises, which had been going on all year, would be continued and expanded to include tactical flight exercises. Both countries also want to define a common area of defense and advance armament projects. But the guest also had a few “Christmas presents” with him. In addition to the granting of gas price discounts, an S-400 air defense system and a nuclear-capable Iskander missile system were handed over to the Belarusian army. Belarusian troops are now to receive special training at the latter.
But while Putin returned home, his visit was followed by the deployment of new Russian soldiers to Belarus. At the beginning of December, both defense ministers signed a protocol that allows Russian troops to be stationed in Belarus without restrictions within the framework of the so-called “joint regional group of armed forces”.
According to reports, more than 2,000 men have been transferred to Belarus since the turn of the year alone, and there could be as many as 15,000 in total. With them comes extensive war equipment – 170 tanks and 200 armored combat vehicles have been announced. In addition, local observers registered the movement of troops from northern and central Belarus towards the southern border and calls on all male citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 to appear in army registration offices in order to “update their data”.
On the one hand, Lukashenko emphasizes that Belarus is already part of the “special operation” and state media keep talking about “Ukrainian provocations” against which one has to defend oneself. On the other hand, he knows how unpopular open entry into the war in Belarus would be, beyond the extensive logistical support provided so far.
However, his self-presentation as a “protector” who keeps his homeland out of the war and provides humanitarian aid has recently brought him stronger polls again. Since the contribution that Belarusian combat troops can make in Ukraine is considered to be rather modest, if the Belarusian army were actually involved in a new offensive, it would probably be used more for logistical tasks behind the front.
If one believes information from the Pentagon, whose forecasts have mostly proved to be correct in this war, an offensive from Belarus is not imminent – there are simply not enough troops for that. Nevertheless, the Ukrainians have already moved new units to the northern border, just in case. Possibly, however, the Russian plan could already consist of thinning out the Ukrainian forces by creating a broad threat backdrop, because Kyiv will then lack these troops elsewhere, for example for new counter-offensives in the Donbas. This is also supported by the first reports that some of the Russian soldiers transferred to Belarus are on their way to eastern Ukraine after receiving training there.
In recent months, Moscow has used terror to force the Ukrainians to a negotiating table in order to secure its land grab in the (south)east of the country. However, it is obvious that this would not mean peace, but at most a ceasefire, since Putin has clearly not given up any of his war aims of subjugating Ukraine and other countries that he considers part of the “Russian sphere of influence”.
It remains of crucial importance for the future of the entire region that the attacked Ukraine can fully defend itself against the aggressor and that Putin is not even tempted to march on Kyiv again. To do this, the thinning of the troops must be compensated for – and this requires additional western weapons, including German battle tanks.
Because this is also the answer that Ukrainians give to the New Year’s wishes: “2023 will be the year of victory – for Ukraine and the freedom of Europe!” Whether this succeeds is also in our hands.
Jakob Wöllenstein has headed the Belarus office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation based in Vilnius since 2019.