Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced last week that his country and Russia would form a joint regional force and conduct exercises, raising alarm in Kiev.
The last time Belarusian and Russian forces held joint exercises in February, many of those Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border on their way to the capital.
It’s not that Belarus has a strong army, it doesn’t. 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 already stretched Ukrainian forces. Ukraine and Belarus share a 1,000-kilometer border, much of which is sparsely populated and thickly forested.
The first group of Russian soldiers to join the new force with Belarusian troops arrived in Belarus on Saturday, the Ministry of Defense in Minsk reported. In total, the Russian contingent will be less than 9,000 people, according to Valery Revenko, head of the Department of International Military Cooperation of Belarus.
Currently, the Ukrainian army is conducting offensives in the east and south, while holding back Russian forces in parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia. After seven months of war, the Ukrainian army has suffered as much wear and tear as its enemy: moving forces to defend its northern flank would stretch forces already fighting on multiple fronts.
Predictably, Belarus says the joint force is purely defensive. Viktor Khrenin, the country’s Defense Minister, said that “all the activities carried out at the moment are aimed at providing a sufficient response to the activities near our borders”.
These activities, according to Belarus, aim to eliminate the preparation to attack the Ukrainian country. Lukashenko said last week that his government had “warned him about strikes against Belarus from the territory of Ukraine”.
Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei continued on Friday, saying an anti-terror operation was underway “amid reports of provocations from neighboring states”.
Ukraine has strongly denied the claims. The Foreign Ministry said that it “categorically rejects these latest insinuations of the Belarusian regime. We cannot rule out that this diplomatic note could be part of a provocation by the Russian Federation.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky told a meeting of the G7 group of advanced world economies last week that UN peacekeepers should be sent to the border.
“Russia is directly trying to draw Belarus into this war,” Zelensky told the G7.
There has certainly been a lot more movement of military hardware on Belarusian railways. Videos on social media have shown multiple rail convoys of tanks and other equipment moving across the country. The markings on one convoy belonged to the Moscow military district.
Analysts believe that much of this hardware is likely to be Russian-owned and drawn from Belarusian stockpiles to compensate for losses suffered by Russian forces in Ukraine, particularly in the past month.
Less: that this spasm of activity indicates that Belarus is preparing to enter the fray. John Kirby, a spokesman for the US National Security Council, said last week that the US had seen no indication that Belarusian troops were “preparing to go in or going in… Any additional troops under Russian command should be of concern, but we’re not there yet.”
Despite his often bombastic rhetoric, Lukashenko has not committed his forces to Russia’s Special Military Operations, and most analysts believe that even if he did, he would do little.
Konrad Muzyka, an independent defense analyst based in Poland, follows the Belarusian military closely and believes they are “quite weak”.
Muzyka said on Twitter: “The Armed Forces of Belarus are largely a mobilization force. Their manpower is about 50-60% of the force required in peacetime.”
To achieve full strength, at least 20,000 men would have to be mobilized, Muzyka added.
That would be a warning sign. But Lukashenko reiterated last week that Belarus had no intention of announcing any mobilization.
Unlike the Russian forces, the Belarusian army rarely conducts exercises above the battalion level. But he has had high-level exercises this year; another was announced last week.
Serhii Naiev, the commander of Ukraine’s Joint Forces, said last week: “This is another proof of their readiness and an artificial increase in 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 up Ukrainian forces at the border; or are preparing for an attack on Ukraine.
The first will not happen; the last option would be a huge lack in Belarus, where there is nowhere near the level of hostility towards Ukraine that has flared up in Russia.
But it is in Moscow’s interests for Ukrainians to worry about their northern border, not least because it is close to Kiev.
Naiev says Belarus is already important to Russia’s missile arsenal. Ukraine estimates there are four ballistic missile systems and 12 surface-based S-400 systems there, and some Iranian-made drones arrived from the north last week. More Russian fighter jets have also begun arriving in Belarus, according to the Belarusian Defense Ministry.
Ukrainian officials estimate that there are currently as few as 1,000 Russian troops in Belarus. But an escalation would “create the threat of a repeated offensive in the operational area of the North, particularly in the city of Kiev,” Naiev said.
Despite the recent partial mobilization in Russia, the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) believes that the Russian army is – for now – unable to form another phalanx to attack northern Ukraine.
“Russian forces continue to cripple their combat capabilities while beating themselves up trying to capture small towns in the Donbas and simply do not have combat-effective mechanized troops available to complement the Belarusian incursion into northern Ukraine,” ISW said on Friday.
Lukashenko has walked 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 don’t hide it. But we don’t kill anyone. We are not sending our military anywhere. We do not violate our obligations.”
However, his room for maneuver is shrinking. Mass protests following a disputed re-election in 2020 left Lukashenko increasingly dependent on Moscow. As the Kremlin’s need for some “wins” in Ukraine becomes urgent, its Western ally may find itself under increasing pressure to cooperate.
But at the same time, Lukashenko wants to avoid the risk of spoiling his untested troops in Ukraine, which risks further domestic unrest if his security forces are distracted or weakened.