Russia launched dozens of explosive-laden drones at targets in Kyiv early Monday, only hours before President Vladimir Putin traveled to Belarus, one of his few remaining strong allies, for meetings with longtime Belarusian leader and ally Alexander Lukashenko.
Russia‘s military used positions in Belarus for the ill-fated first stage of its now 10-month war in Ukraine, amid constant speculation that Minsk, which is heavily dependent on Russia, would be drawn into the fighting. But once again, the two leaders used friendly but purposefully vague language to describe the bilateral relations and Belarus‘ ambiguous role in the fighting.
Mr. Putin arrived in Minsk for a one-day working visit on Monday. He took part in a traditional Slavic bread-and-salt welcoming ceremony and embraced Mr. Lukashenko in his first visit to Belarus since June 2019 and one of his rare trips outside Russia since the Ukraine war began.
Ukrainian military leaders and a prominent Belarusian opposition leader say Mr. Putin’s visit with Mr. Lukashenko could be a sign that Russia wants to push Minsk into taking a larger part in its faltering invasion. Largely isolated from the West after a brutal crackdown on opposition forces following a widely questioned 2020 election, Mr. Lukashenko has few options when it comes to strong supporters on the global stage.
Lt. Gen. Serhii Naev, commander of Ukraine’s joint forces, said Mr. Putin had meetings about Russia’s near and medium-term military plans shortly before the trip to Belarus, which shares its own 600-mile border with Ukraine, including land that if just an hour’s drive across the border from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
“During this meeting, the issues of further aggression against Ukraine and the wider involvement of the armed forces of the Republic of Belarus in the operation against Ukraine will be worked out,” Lt. Gen. Naev said in a video statement posted on Facebook.
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But Russian officials deny allegations that Mr. Putin is pressuring Belarus to get directly involved in the conflict. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov rejected speculation that the Russian leader would even discuss Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine during his state visit. He said the notion should be dismissed as “totally stupid, groundless fabrications,” according to Tass, the official Russian news agency.
“It is Belarus that we have the most advanced bilateral relations integration regime with,” Mr. Peskov said. “So no one is forcing anyone.”
Close but not too close
Mr. Lukashenko said he considers Russia to be his country’s closest ally and insisted that Minsk would never work against Moscow’s interests. But, he denied that the Kremlin is pulling his strings.
“We are ready to build relationships. But, we must always proceed from the fact that we are a sovereign state and independent,” Mr. Lukashenko said, according to a transcript of the meeting released by the Belarusian presidential press service.
On the battlefield across the border, Ukraine’s military said it shot down 30 of the 35 Iranian-made Shahed-136/131 drones that Russia fired into the country. Those that got around the country’s air defense network did fresh damage to the country’s power grid and other civilian targets that Russian salvos have been targeting for weeks, officials said.
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“It was one of the most massive drone attacks in our country since the beginning of the war,” Ukraine’s defense ministry posted on its Twitter page early Monday.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the attack resulted in any casualties. It took place on St. Nicholas Day, traditionally the start of the Christmas season in Ukraine.
“Today, on St. Nicholas Day, according to the Eastern Rite, Russian terrorists ‘gifted’ new strikes to Ukrainian children,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday during a video address to the United Kingdom-led Joint Expeditionary Force. “Ukrainian children, in their letters to St. Nicholas, ask for air defense, weapons, and victory — victory for themselves [and] victory for all Ukrainians. Our children understand everything.”
Mr. Putin said Russia and Belarus are cooperating in a variety of areas, including the promotion of high-tech industries and production lines.
But he denied the two leaders discussed a long-held dream of the Kremlin for a tighter political, economic and military bond between the two countries that once were both part of the Soviet Union. Mr. Lukashenko, who has been in power for nearly three decades, has always been leery of a too-close embrace of the far larger Russian bear for his small, landlocked country.
Mr. Putin denied to reporters after the talks Monday that the idea of a closer union had even come up.
“Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone. There is simply no usefulness in this,” the Russian leader said, according to an account of the meeting by the Minsk-based Belta news service.
“These are just the attempts of the ill-wishers to slow down our integration,” Mr. Putin added. “They are doing it only to make sure efficient competitors, that might be dangerous for them, do not emerge in the international market. That’s all.”
Added Mr. Lukashenkko, “If someone is hatching plans to tear us apart, to drive a wedge between us, they will not succeed. In 2020, it was not Russia that attacked us around the perimeter. Russia extended a helping hand to us. We were attacked” by the West.
But exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya said Ukrainian officials are right to sound the alarm against a closer relationship between Mr. Putin and Mr. Lukashenko. In a recent interview with the Kyiv Post newspaper, Ms. Tsiokhanouskaya, who many believe defeated Mr. Lukashenko in the 2020 vote before fleeing into exile, insisted that the people of Belarus would oppose any participation in the war but acknowledged that a new front in the fighting could open up in the coming weeks.
“I think the Ukrainian leadership is right to prepare for that scenario even though it means distracting significant forces from active war zones in the southeast,” she said, according to the Kyiv Post.
Mr. Putin noted Monday that he and Mr. Lukashenko agreed to continue holding joint military training and what he called “mutual weapons delivery. He even confirmed plans for the flight of a Belarusian cosmonaut on a Russian spacecraft in 2023. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu joined Mr. Putin on the trip to Minsk to meet with his defense counterparts.
Ms. Tsikhanouskaya said the Belarusian people support Ukraine’s fight for sovereignty against Moscow, despite what their leader says.
“Russia is looking at our countries in the same light, denying our right to sovereign choice and dismissing national identity,” Ms. Tsiokhanouskaya said.
But after numerous failures on the battlefield, the ability of Russian military leaders to conduct effective large-scale mechanized operations in the next few months is dubious, even if Russian troops are reinforced with elements of the Belarusian armed forces, according to the influential Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank.
“The manpower Russia is generating from mobilized reservists and from annual fall conscription cycles will not be sufficiently trained to conduct rapid and effective mechanized maneuver this fall. Russia’s struggles to keep the forces it currently has fighting in Ukraine equipped with tanks, artillery, long-range strike and other essential material are very unlikely to be resolved in time to equip a large new force for offensive operations this winter,” the ISW said in a recent report.
Mr. Putin may indeed order renewed large-scale offensive operations later this winter, but it is important not to overestimate their capabilities or the capabilities of a joint Russian-Belarusian force to successfully conduct them, the ISW said.