Putin meets dictator Lukashenko in Belarus fuelling fears ally will join new offensive in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin met dictator Alexander Lukashenko today during a rare visit to Belarus, fuelling fears in Kyiv that he intends to pressure his ex-Soviet ally to join a fresh ground offensive that would open up a new front against Ukraine.
Putin’s visit for talks with the Belarusian President is his first to Minsk since 2019 and the Russian President will focus on deepening his ties with Belarus at a time when his army is struggling with its invasion of Ukraine.
The Kremlin has for years sought to deepen integration with Belarus, which relies on Moscow for cheap oil and loans, but Lukashenko has so far resisted outright unification with Russia, despite being a key ally in the war.
However, speculation mounted ahead of Putin’s visit that he would pressure Lukashenko to send his troops to Ukraine alongside Russia’s military after a series of defeats for Moscow in nearly ten months of fighting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met dictator Alexander Lukashenko today during a rare visit to Belarus, fuelling fears in Kyiv that he intends to pressure his ex-Soviet ally to join a fresh ground offensive that would open up a new front against Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin soon after flying into the Belarusian capital Minsk, Belarus today
Putin’s troops have been driven back in Ukraine’s north, north-east and south. Belarus is believed to have Soviet-era weapon stockpiles that could be useful for Moscow, while Lukashenko needs help with his country’s ailing economy.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that although Belarus was Russia’s ‘No1 ally’, suggestions that Moscow wants to pressure Minsk into joining what it calls its ‘special military operation’ were ‘stupid and unfounded fabrications’.
Serhiy Nayev, Ukraine’s Joint Forces Commander, said he believed the talks would address ‘further aggression against Ukraine and the broader involvement of the Belarusian armed forces in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, also on the ground’.
Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, told the Economist last week that Russia was preparing 200,000 fresh troops for a major offensive that could come from the east, south or even from Belarus as early as January, but more likely in spring.
Russian forces used Belarus as a launch pad for their abortive attack on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in February, and there has been Russian and Belarusian military activity there for months. Three Russian warplanes and an airborne early warning and control aircraft were deployed to Belarus last week.
Putin’s visit for talks with the Belarusian President is his first to Minsk since 2019 and the Russian President will focus on deepening his ties with Belarus at a time when his army is struggling with its invasion of Ukraine
Hours before Putin touched down in Minsk, Russia announced its forces were running military exercises with Belarusian forces.
The defence ministry released footage of drills in Belarus, showing soldiers conducting tank manoeuvres, and practising artillery and sniper fire at a snowy training ground.
Ahead of Putin’s visit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the situation on Ukraine’s border with Russia and Belarus as a ‘constant priority’.
‘We are preparing for all possible defence scenarios,’ Mr Zelensky said, adding that he had recently discussed the border regions with military commanders.
In October, Belarus announced the formation of a joint regional force with Moscow with several thousand Russian servicemen arriving in the ex-Soviet country, fuelling concerns Minsk could also send troops to Ukraine.
But Lukashenko, a pariah in the West who relies heavily on Moscow for support, has repeatedly said Belarus will not enter the war in Ukraine. Foreign diplomats say committing Belarusian troops would be deeply unpopular at home.
Western sanctions have already made it hard for Belarus to ship potash fertilisers, its top export, via Baltic ports.
Western military analysts say Lukashenko’s small army lacks the strength and combat experience to make a big difference – but that by forcing Ukraine to commit forces to its north it could leave it more exposed to Russian assaults elsewhere.
The Pentagon said on December 13 that it did not see ‘any type of impending cross-border activity by Belarus at this time’.
Meanwhile, Putin took elaborate measures to avoid being shot down by the Ukrainian military as he flew to Minsk, it was claimed.
It is believed the Kremlin leader flew in from St Petersburg – rather than Moscow – to avoid passing close to the frontier of Ukraine, according to claims.
He was reported to have received a fighter escort as he approached Minsk. At the same time, two other Ilyushin aircraft took off to ‘confuse the enemy’, said Belarus opposition channel MotolkoHelp.
Meanwhile, Putin’s arrival on an icy runway in Minsk came hours after Russian forces launched a swarm of explosive drones at critical infrastructure in Kyiv, injuring three people and causing emergency blackouts in a dozen regions.
Russia has pounded Ukraine with 35 more Iranian-made kamikaze drones, hitting a key energy hub in a huge explosion
Putin’s visit was announced on Friday after a surprise December 3 trip to Belarus by his defence minister Sergei Shoigu, where he signed an undisclosed agreement with his Belarusian counterpart.
Adding to the ominous mood, Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei, one of the few officials in Lukashenko’s government with any rapport with the West, died suddenly last month. No official cause of death has been announced.
His successor, Sergei Aleinik, met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday.
Lukashenko said he and Putin would discuss a long-running effort to integrate their respective former Soviet republics in a supranational ‘union state’. The talks are seen by the Belarus opposition as a vehicle for a creeping Russian annexation.
Belarus’s state news agency, BelTA, said they would answer questions from reporters following their talks.
At a government meeting after the talks with Putin were announced, Lukashenko unexpectedly said that any ceding of sovereignty would be a betrayal of the Belarusian people.
The drones were unleashed in the early hours of Monday as many people slept, hitting critical infrastructure in and around Kyiv
‘Particularly after these large-scale negotiations, everyone will say: ‘That’s it, there are no longer any authorities in Belarus, the Russians are already walking around and running the country’,’ Lukashenko said.
‘I want to again underline this in particular: No one other than us runs Belarus.’
He said he would discuss economic co-operation, energy supplies, defence and security with Putin.
Russian agencies quoted Peskov as saying ‘no one is pressuring anyone to integrate’.
Meanwhile, Russia launched a series of drone attacks on Kyiv. Moscow also said it had shot down several US-made missiles over its airspace near Ukraine.
‘I first heard the air raid siren howling from the street… I thought there is going to be a drone attack. For the first time, it scared me,’ Natalia Dobrovolska, a 68-year-old resident of Kyiv, said.
She described hearing multiple explosions before power shut off in her building in western Kyiv. Officials said Russia had dispatched 35 attack drones nationwide, including 23 over Kyiv.
Ukraine said it had downed 30 of the aerial weapons, including Iranian-made ‘Shaheds’, which have pummelled the capital in recent weeks.
Mayor Vitali Klitschko said critical infrastructure facilities were ‘damaged’ while regional authorities said nine homes had been hit in the attacks.
Meanwhile, energy operator Ukrenergo announced that emergency electricity outages were scheduled in the capital and nearly a dozen regions.
At the same time, Moscow said its air defence systems had shot down four US-made missiles over Belgorod, a Russian region bordering Ukraine, in one of its first such claims in nearly ten months of fighting.
‘Four American ‘HARM’ anti-radar missiles were shot down in the airspace over the Belgorod region,’ the defence ministry said on social media.
The Ukrainian Emergency Ministry released pictures of a fire at a critical power infrastructure after the drone attack in Kyiv
Under the darkness of night, a fire raged at one site at an energy facility in the often targeted central Shevchenkivskyi district, a witness said
Ukraine has experienced frequent and deadly aerial attacks in the ten months since Russia invaded in late February.
After a series of battlefield setbacks and lost territory this summer and autumn, Moscow stepped up its aerial campaign to target the country’s energy grid.
With winter setting in, missile and drone attacks have plunged cities around the country into darkness, and severed water and heat supplies to millions of Ukrainians.
After a major Russian assault aiming more than 70 missiles on cities last Friday, the national electricity operator was forced to impose emergency rolling blackouts as it raced to repair the battered energy grid.
Speaking to the leaders of several Nato countries by videolink after the drone attacks Monday, Mr Zelensky urged Ukraine’s allies to supply its military with more weapons.
‘Russian aggression can and must fail. And our task now is to accelerate it,’ he told the leaders assembled in Riga, Latvia.
He said in a late-night address on Sunday that some nine million people had their electricity restored after Russia’s latest missile barrage last week. Ukraine has an estimated population of 40million.