In the weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, it held joint military drills with its neighbour and ally Belarus, massing tens of thousands of soldiers along the Ukrainian border even as the two countries’ leaders denied reports that the Kremlin was planning to go to war.
On Saturday, President Vladimir Putin of Russia met President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus in St Petersburg, promising weapons capable of holding nuclear warheads that Lukashenko — dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — said would make his country “ready for anything.”
Putin promised to deliver the Iskander-M systems, which have a range of about 300 miles and can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, “within months,” and vowed to upgrade Belarusian Su-25 fighter jets, after Lukashenko asked the Russian leader to make its warplanes capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
“We need to be ready for anything, even the use of serious weaponry to defend our fatherland from Brest to Vladivostok,” Lukashenko said, referring to Belarus’ westernmost city and Russia’s port in the Far East.
While the men met, the Belarusian armed forces were once again holding “mobilisation” drills in the area bordering Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, threatening to aggravate tensions in an already volatile region and prompting Ukraine to put its border guards on high alert.
“Units are being brought to higher levels of combat readiness, practical measures are being taken to accept conscripts, weapons and military equipment are being removed from storage,” a spokesperson for the Ukrainian military’s operational command said in a statement this month.
Ukrainian officials and Western observers think it is highly unlikely that Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.4 million people, will directly join the war at this time, given the risks of provoking social unrest at home and undermining Lukashenko’s grip on power. Morale among Belarusian troops has also been shaky, according to Pavel P Latushko, a former senior Belarusian official who fled the country.
Nevertheless, analysts believe Lukashenko, an autocrat beholden to the Kremlin, is desperately trying to show his value to Putin. He has proved a dependable friend ever since Putin bolstered his security forces to help him put down mass protests that followed an implausible landslide victory in a contested presidential election in 2020.
The former director of a Soviet collective pig farm, Lukashenko has secured his hold on Belarus over nearly three decades by maneuevering adroitly between East and West, playing each side against the other. But in the aftermath of last year’s uprising against him, he has become increasingly dependent on the Kremlin and docile to Putin.
Some analysts believe it is only a matter of time before pressure from Putin forces Lukashenko to take more direct action in the war, pushing him into an existential dilemma. Joining the conflict could undermine his support at home, but if he does not do Putin’s bidding, the Russian leader could retaliate by taking steps to force him from office.
In the early stages of the war, Belarus allowed Putin to use its territory for Russian troops to stage a shock-and-awe operation to try to capture Kyiv. The plan failed spectacularly, but with Russia now bogged down in a grinding war of attrition in Ukraine’s east, Moscow would benefit from any help Lukashenko could provide.
Lukashenko has proved himself a pliant friend. He has used Belarus’ 600-mile border with Ukraine to help place wooden “dummy tanks” in the woods, creating the illusion of impending danger; to replenish Russia’s arsenal; and to allow Moscow to stage missile strikes from within Belarusian territory.
As part of this weekend’s drills, the Belarusian army has dispatched 3,500 to 4,000 military personnel near the border, according to Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. The entire Belarusian army has about 60,000 troops, he said, although Lukashenko wants to add another 20,000.
The Belarusian Defense Ministry said its special operation forces would participate in the drills, which will take place in the country’s southeastern Gomel region, whose border is just 65 miles from Kyiv.
While Lukashenko has made it clear that his loyalties now rest firmly with Putin, he remains a mercurial leader, known for sometimes unpredictable behaviour. Among other things, he has touted ice hockey, vodka, saunas and tractor-driving as remedies for Covid; sent a fighter jet to intercept a European airliner carrying a prominent dissident; and made his generals salute his teenage son.