Concerns are rising in Kyiv that Russia is preparing to launch a new offensive against Ukraine from Belarus amid a spate of high level visits and a slow but steady buildup of Russian troops and military equipment.
Putin’s talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko focused on economic cooperation, according to readouts from their offices. But this was Putin’s first visit to Belarus in three years and he was accompanied by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, suggesting the talks were more far more expansive.
“We have no idea what they are talking about behind closed doors, but there is a high likelihood Putin is pushing to get the Belarusian army involved in an offensive,” said Yuriy Saks, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister.
At a joint appearance after their meeting, Putin said they had “discussed in detail the issues of forming a common defense space” and were implementing a “common military doctrine.” Lukashenko, with evident sarcasm, said: “The two of us are co-aggressors, the most harmful and toxic people on this planet.”
The visit coincided with escalating warnings by Ukrainian officials that Russia is planning a major winter offensive to regain the initiative after months of setbacks that have forced Russian troops to retreat from more than half of the territory they captured in the early weeks of Putin’s invasion.
The officials say they are particularly concerned that Russia will attempt to reopen the northern front, perhaps this time aided by Belarusian troops.
On Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held a top-level security meeting focused on the growing threat of an incursion from Belarus, according to his office. Ukrainian officials have also said they suspect Russia is attempting to create the impression that Russia plans to invade from the north to draw Ukrainian troops away from actual battles in eastern Ukraine.
No such operation is considered imminent, U.S. and other Western officials say. “We do not see any type of impending cross-border activity by Belarus at this time,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters last week.
Russia now has 10,000 to 15,000 troops in the country, not nearly enough for an attack, and the Belarusian army numbers no more than 50,000, none of whom have combat experience, military analysts say.
Russia launched February’s invasion from Belarus with about 40,000 troops and it failed against relatively lightly armed Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian forces are now battle-hardened and better armed with an influx of sophisticated Western weaponry, and they have heavily fortified the border with mines, wire and in some places a wall.
But a steady increase in Russia’s military presence in Belarus in recent weeks suggest Moscow may at least be exploring the possibility of a new assault in coming months, according to military analysts and Belarusian defectors who maintain contact with sympathizers inside the Belarusian security forces.
Although there is no sign of an imminent offensive, “Russian commanders may be keeping options open for a potential attack against Ukraine from Belarus in winter 2023,” said an assessment last week by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group.
The Russian troops that survived the failed offensive on Kyiv were pulled out of Belarus and relocated to eastern Ukraine last spring. But in October, Moscow announced that Russian troops would return to Belarus and at least 10,000 have arrived, ostensibly for training and exercises with Belarusian forces.
For months, Belarus has sent equipment including tanks and munitions to support Russia’s offensive in east Ukraine. In recent weeks, new Russian armaments began arriving in Belarus, including air defenses, missile systems and hundreds of trucks, according to Western officials and Belarusian opposition figures.
The Belarusian military has also been conducting intensive training, and last week carried out a major combat readiness check on the border with Ukraine. The army has been drawing up lists of military aged men in apparent readiness for a larger mobilization.
Former military officers working with the Belarusian opposition in exile say they believe the activity points to a plan to invade Ukraine by spring. Alexander Azarov, a former lieutenant colonel in the Belarusian KGB intelligence service, said his contacts in the military tell him the training has involved maneuvers that would be required in an invasion, including river crossings.
Russia has sent half of its 300,000 newly mobilized troops to the eastern front, but 150,000 are not yet committed and Russia could quickly move them to Belarus for an invasion, Azarov said. “We think that in spring, Lukashenko will send Belarusian troops into Ukraine with Russian troops,” he said.
An assault may not come from the same direction as last February, said Valery Sakhashchyk, a former brigade commander who is now with the opposition. Renovations to roads and railways around the southwestern Belarus city of Brest suggest an incursion into Western Ukraine aimed at cutting off supply routes used to transport Western weapons, Sakhashchyk said.
But there is no reason to believe a new invasion from Belarus would fare better than the first, said Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation. Russia may simply be trying to distract the Ukrainian military by forcing it to commit troops to defend the northern border, Massicot said.
“It’s an ambiguous posture and it benefits Russia to have it ambiguous but it would be really a poor decision of the Russians to try to do another invasion of Belarus,” she said. “The forces that they’ve got there are not well trained and they’ve got a hodgepodge of equipment. It would not go well.”
It would also be politically risky for Lukashenko to commit Belarusian forces to an invasion of Ukraine, said Franak Viacorka, chief adviser to the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
Lukashenko’s legitimacy has been in doubt since he claimed victory in an election in 2020 that the opposition claims was rigged, triggering widespread protests. He now relies on Putin for support, but could face a new uprising if he were to send Belarusian troops across the border, Viacorka said.
Ukraine has not concluded that there will be an attack from Ukraine, but it is monitoring developments and preparing, said Saks, the defense ministry adviser. “Our defense intelligence does not see any sign of an imminent attack. But everyone is aware that they have not given up on the idea and could attack again from Belarus,” he said.
“We are confident that we would be able to crush them and defeat them because we have sufficiently fortified the border,” he added. “We have enough troops and we have weaponry from our Western friends.”
Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.