Ukraine turns its attention to the north after Russian troops enter Belarus

(CNN) — The announcement made last week by the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, that his country and Russia would form a joint regional force and carry out exercises, triggered alarms in Kyiv.

The last time Belarusian and Russian forces held joint exercises, in February, many of those Russian forces even crossed the Ukrainian border in their ill-fated advance on the capital.

It is not that Belarus has a powerful army: it does not. But the prospect of Ukraine’s long northern border becoming a passageway for Russian forces for the second time this year would be a nightmare for Ukrainian forces, already strained. Ukraine and Belarus share a 1,000-kilometre border, much of which is sparsely populated and densely forested.

Russian-Belarusian exercises, dubbed Allied Resolve 2022, in Belarus on February 19. (Henadz Zhinkov/Xinhua/Getty Images)

The first group of Russian soldiers to join the new force with the Belarusian military arrived in Belarus on Saturday, the Minsk Defense Ministry said. In total, the Russian contingent will be less than 9,000 people, according to the head of the Department of International Military Cooperation of Belarus, Valery Revenko.

At the moment, Ukraine’s military is conducting offensives in the east and south while holding off Russian forces in parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhia. After seven months of war, the Ukrainian army has suffered the same wear and tear as its enemy: moving forces to defend its northern flank would push forces already fighting on multiple fronts even further.

Unsurprisingly, Belarus says the joint force is purely defensive. The country’s Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said that “all the activities that are taking place at the moment are aimed at giving a sufficient response to the activities near our borders.”

Such activities, according to Belarus, are aimed at deterring Ukrainian preparations to attack the country. Lukashenko said last week that his government had been “warned of attacks against Belarus from the territory of Ukraine.”

Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei said on Friday that a counter-terrorism operation was underway “amid reports of imminent provocations by nearby states.”

Ukraine has vehemently denied the claims. The Foreign Ministry said it “categorically rejects these latest insinuations by the Belarusian regime. We cannot rule out that this diplomatic note is part of a provocation by the Russian Federation.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky told a meeting of the G7 group of the world’s advanced economies last week that UN peacekeepers should be sent to the border.

“Russia is trying to draw Belarus directly into this war,” Zelensky told the G7.

Certainly there has been much more movement of military equipment on the railways of Belarus. Social media videos have shown multiple rail convoys of tanks and other equipment moving across the country. The markings on one convoy were from the Moscow Military Region.

Analysts believe that much of this material is likely to belong to Russia and that they are recovering it from Belarus to compensate for the losses that Russian forces have suffered in Ukraine, especially in the past month.

Less likely: This spasm of activity indicates that Belarus is preparing to enter the fray.

US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said last week that the US had recorded no indication that Belarusian troops “are preparing to enter or are going to enter… Any additional military under Russian command is something of a concern, but we’re not there yet.”

Despite his often bombastic rhetoric, Lukashenko has not committed his forces to the “Russian Special Military Operation,” and most analysts believe that even if he did, it would not make much difference.

Konrad Muzyka, an independent defense analyst based in Poland, closely follows the Belarusian military and believes they are “relatively weak”.

Muzyka said on Twitter: “The Belarusian Armed Forces are very much a mobilization force. Their strength is about 50-60% of the strength required in peacetime.”

To reach full strength, they would need to mobilize at least 20,000 men, Muzyka added.

That would be an alarm signal. But Lukashenko repeated last week that Belarus was not planning to announce any mobilization.

ukraine belarus border

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Unlike the Russian forces, the Belarusian Army rarely conducts exercises above the battalion level. But this year he has done a high level of exercises; another was announced last week.

Serhii Naiev, the commanding officer of the Ukrainian Joint Forces, said last week: “It is another demonstration of their preparedness and an artificial escalation of the level of tension.”

Analyst Muzyka imagines three scenarios: the exercises are designed to prepare for an attack by NATO states; they aim to tie down Ukrainian forces along the border; or they are preparations for an assault on the Ukraine.

The first is not going to happen; the latter option would be hugely unpopular in Belarus, where there is nowhere near the level of hostility towards Ukraine that has been created in Russia.

But it is in Moscow’s interest that the Ukrainians care about their northern border, especially its proximity to Kyiv.

Naiev says that Belarus is already important for Russian missile batteries. Ukraine estimates there are four ballistic missile systems there and 12 S-400 surface-to-air systems, and some Iranian-made drones arrived from the north last week. More Russian warplanes have also started arriving in Belarus, according to the Belarusian Defense Ministry.

Ukrainian officials estimate that there are only 1,000 Russian soldiers in Belarus at the moment. But an increase in troops “would create the threat of a repeated offensive in the northern operational zone, in particular on the city of Kyiv,” Naiev said.

Despite the recent partial mobilization in Russia, the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believes that the Russian military is, for the time being, unable to form another phalanx to attack Ukraine from the north.

“Russian forces continue to wear down their own combat capabilities as they engage in attempts to capture small villages in Donbas and simply do not have the combat-effective mechanized troops available to complement a Belarusian incursion into northern Ukraine,” the ISW said on Friday.

Lukashenko has maintained a fine line throughout the conflict: supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” without committing his own troops.

Last week he said: “We are participating (in the operation). We are not hiding it. But we are not killing anyone. We are not sending our military anywhere. We are not violating our obligations.”

However, your wiggle room may be shrinking. Mass protests that erupted after his disputed re-election in 2020 made Lukashenko increasingly reliant on Moscow. As the Kremlin’s need for some “victories” in Ukraine grows more urgent, its ally in the West may find itself under increasing pressure to collaborate.

But at the same time, Lukashenko will want to avoid the risk of his battle-untested troops being wiped out in Ukraine, as he is vulnerable to further internal unrest if his security forces are distracted or weakened.

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