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Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko shakes hands with Russian president Vladimir Putin in front of a Christmas tree
Getting in the Christmas spirit? EPA-EFE/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

Ukraine war: Putin’s Belarus visit ends with talk of increased defence cooperation and nuclear sabre-rattling

Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Minsk has raised renewed fears that Belarus might be drawn into the war in Ukraine. Putin discussed closer military cooperation with his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, including the establishment of a “unified defence space” and the continuation of regular joint military exercises.

While Russia used Belarus as one of its launchpads for its invasion in February, so far no Belarusian troops have participated in the fighting in Ukraine. This is unlikely to change anytime soon, despite months of Russian-Belarusian military manoeuvres, the creation of joint military forces, and the delivery of advanced weapons systems from Russia to Belarus.

But Putin’s visit to Minsk highlights the continued implementation of the so-called “union state” with an even deeper economic integration of the two countries. This will also support Russia’s war effort by supplying weapons, ammunition and other military equipment.

There is wide agreement among western analysts that Belarus is unlikely to put troops into Ukraine. In any case, Belarusian forces are thought to be too poorly trained, equipped and motivated to pose a serious threat to Ukraine.

But at the same time, several months of Russian-Belarusian war games have been used to test, and to signal, Belarusian forces’ combat readiness. And during a recent visit by Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu to his Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin, both sides agreed on the “joint provision of regional security” – although it remains unclear what exactly this implies.

At a minimum, what these various activities have achieved is a degree of uncertainty over the Kremlin’s intentions. This uncertainty, in turn, requires Ukraine to prepare for the possibility of another invasion from Belarusian territory by keeping some of its forces and equipment deployed at the border.

This means that while Russia can use Belarus as a training ground for reservists and new recruits, Ukraine has to divert some of its forces away from the key battle lines in the south and east of the country. This reduces Kyiv’s potential offensive capacities and thereby relieves Russia from the pressure Ukraine has been able to put on its forces in Donbas and around Kherson over the past few months, and around Kharkiv before then.

Moreover, keeping forces deployed at the border with Belarus also means reduced defensive capacities, especially in the fiercely contested areas of the Donbas. Given Russia’s longstanding war aim to “liberate” all of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in the east, this creates potential advantages for Russia to stage another large-scale offensive later in the winter.

Russia’s continuing nuclear threat

Both the west and China have repeatedly emphasised that any nuclear escalation by Putin would be unacceptable – and Nato has threatened a clear and decisive response if it were to happen. While Russia has toned down its nuclear rhetoric over the past several weeks, Lukashenko commented during his press conference with Putin that Belarus has tested its nuclear-capable, Soviet-era war planes in Russia and is “now working with the Russians to train our crews to pilot planes carrying special warheads”. The fact that Putin appeared to confirm this suggests the tactic of threatening a deployment of nuclear weapons is not off the table yet.

Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu and Vladimir Putin sit at a desk with other Russian military officers.
Russia and Ukraine have agreed to continue to hold joint military exercises as part of a ‘unified defence space’. EPA-EFE/Alexei Drushinin/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

This does not increase the likelihood of an all-out nuclear confrontation between Russia and the west, but it does create yet more uncertainty. Putin might allow Belarus – or Russian forces masquerading as Belarusians – to use tactical nuclear weapons under some pretext and then deny any knowledge of, let alone responsibility for, such an act of barbarism.

The timing of this renewed nuclear sabre-rattling is ominous, as it comes at a point when the US is expected to announce its first delivery of the Patriot missile long-range air defence system to Kyiv. If supplied in sufficient quantities, these missiles would be a potential game changer in an air war that has seen Ukrainian critical infrastructure severely degraded by massive Russian missile and drone attacks.

Bolstering Ukraine’s military capacity

Strengthening Ukrainian air defences is a crucial task that the country’s western partners must not delay much longer. Without this, Russia is likely to continue its pounding of Ukraine’s infrastructure, particularly its power grid. This could trigger a severe humanitarian crisis far beyond the suffering that the Ukrainian people have already endured during almost ten months of war.

But strengthening Ukrainian defences alone will not be enough. Without equally improved offensive capacities, regaining territory will be immeasurably more difficult for Ukrainian forces either to credibly threaten or actually accomplish. And without even the credible threat of a successful offensive, Russia will dig in deeper in the currently occupied territories while rebuilding its own offensive capacity.

There is a third reason why Kyiv – and its western partners – would be best served by bolstering Ukraine’s military capacity. A well-trained and well-equipped Ukrainian military would be the best defence of Ukrainian democracy against future Russian aggression. It would also help Ukraine to become a net contributor to European security.

A strong and democratic Ukraine that is sustainably integrated in Nato and the EU would represent the ultimate defeat for Putin. It would also send a powerful signal to others in the post-Soviet space that standing up to Russia is worthwhile and possible.

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