Russian forces remain in Belarus in position to attack Ukraine

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Belarusian Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin announced joint drills would continue after massive joint military drills with Russia ended on Sunday, citing the “worsening situation” in eastern Ukraine.

The announcement goes against previous promises by Minsk officials that Russian troops would return home at the end of the drills.

Khrenin said the two countries would “retaliate” if necessary, which analysts said showed that Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s foreign and military policy had effectively been captured by Russia.

“It’s just a sign that the current Belarusian government, Lukashenko’s government, is increasingly dependent on Russia in its foreign and security policy and cannot really pursue its own autonomous decisions,” he said. said Artyom Shraibman, Belarusian political analyst at Carnegie Moscow. Center.

As Western leaders warn that Russia could launch an attack on Ukraine in the coming days, Tikhanovskaya, who is recognized by Western leaders as the rightful winner of the flawed 2020 presidential election, said that Belarus ” was losing its sovereignty” and called on Russian troops to leave. immediately.

“The presence of Russian troops on our territory violates our constitution, international law and endangers the security of every Belarusian and the entire region. Belarus is being drawn into someone else’s war and turned into an aggressor country,” she said in a statement on Sunday.

Lukashenko has been beholden to Russian President Vladimir Putin since disputed elections in Belarus in 2020, when street protests nearly ousted him from power before Putin promised to send Russian forces to quell the unrest if needed. Lukashenko launched a massive crackdown, beating and jailing hundreds of opposition figures and activists, and hung on without Putin’s help.

Putin and Lukashenko met on Friday to discuss the Russia-NATO crisis, after Western nations rejected Moscow’s demands for sweeping security guarantees, including banning Ukraine and other countries to join NATO and rolling back the forces and equipment of the alliance from Eastern Europe.

Lukashenko said after Friday’s meeting that he and Putin had developed a joint plan to deter “Western aggression”. The next day, Putin rewarded him with an invitation to watch Russian nuclear forces exercises as the Russian leader oversaw several hypersonic and cruise missile launches.

A photo from the Kremlin showed the two men seated at a circular white table in the Russian Defense Ministry Situation Center as Putin kicked off the drills, co-opting the Belarusian leader as he sent a powerful message to Washington and the NATO on its determination to reshape Europe’s security architecture. , and its willingness to use military force if necessary.

After years of peace, villagers in Ukraine’s Donbass region are experiencing a sharp increase in shelling by separatists and fear a Russian invasion. (Whitney Leaming, Erin Patrick O’Connor, Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Putin sees Belarus and Ukraine as Russia’s little Slavic brothers, part of what he calls the “Russian world”. He is convinced that Ukraine can only succeed if, like Belarus, it joins Russia’s sphere of influence.

While Western officials warn Putin against an invasion to force Ukraine’s surrender, Putin has dominated Belarus without the need for military force, leveraging Lukashenko’s political debt. It is not yet clear whether Putin will require Belarusian forces to participate directly if he invades Ukraine, but Russia could use Belarusian airfields, transport and logistics.

“When it comes to war, Putin will just take it for granted that he has Belarus as an extension of his territory, militarily speaking, so it could be as if Belarus is an accomplice, a supporting force, but not was not participating and attacking Kiev with Russian soldiers,” said Shraibman, the analyst.

Even before the drills began 10 days ago, Western military analysts warned it could serve as cover for an attack force to invade Ukraine from the north and potentially encircle the capital, Kiev, as part of a a large-scale, multi-pronged invasion from the south. , east and north.

According to NATO, there are some 30,000 Russian forces in Belarus, along with significant military hardware, including S-400 missile systems, positioned in the south of the country.

Shraibman said that if Lukashenko ordered his forces to participate in an invasion of Ukraine, Belarusian military officials would obey their orders, but probably reluctantly.

“Based on my analysis of public opinion in Belarus, including in law enforcement and the military, there is simply no appetite for Belarus to be dragged into any kind of conflict and yet less in the conflict of another country.”

Lukashenko has floated the idea of ​​harboring Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil on several occasions, including last week – an example of him offering the Kremlin even more than Putin expected, Shraibman said.

On Saturday, alongside Putin in nuclear forces drills, Lukashenko showed his loyalty at a critical time for Putin, hoping to win economic support and favor, he added.

“Lukashenko is doing even more than what is asked of him, for example his initiative regarding the nuclear bombs stationed in Belarus. He sometimes wants to outperform to show that he is even more of an ally than anyone might expect.

“Until we are in a war situation, when it is still only lip service, he can afford to do it. He is happy to do it.

Khrenin said the goal of the continued military drills would be the same as the recently completed drills: “to ensure adequate response and de-escalation of military preparations from the bad guys near our common borders.”

Just four days ago, Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said: “Not a single [Russian] military, not a single piece of military equipment will remain in Belarus after these exercises.

The first hint that Russian forces might not leave after the drills came on Saturday, when Belarusian General Alexander Volfovich told reporters that all drill tasks had been completed but “the drill can continue”. When and for how long will be decided by the head of inspection.

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