Russia and Belarus will start 10 days of joint military drills on Thursday, setting in train one of the most overtly threatening components of the Kremlin's buildup of forces around Ukraine's borders.
Valery Gerasimov, the head of the Russian basic personnel, gotten here in Belarus on Wednesday to manage the drills.
Russia has actually gone up to 30,000 troops, two battalions of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems and various fighter jets into Belarus for joint training exercises with the Belarusian army. Satellite images shows much of the hardware has actually been moved to locations close to the border with Ukraine.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, supposedly told France's Emmanuel Macron this week that the soldiers would leave Belarus when the exercises ended on 20 February. Even if that does take place, the drills reveal that Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, is a company ally in Putin's Ukraine policy.
" Lukashenko will not be able to resist giving Belarusian territory for whatever purposes Russia requires it, whether it's marching through, utilizing Belarusian military centers, airbases, perhaps possibly even the air defence system," said Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst.
From the border with Belarus, it is only about 130 miles (210km) down a highway to Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, and the joint exercises add a brand-new front to a possible Russian assault on Ukraine. There is also a risk from the south, where Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, and from the east, where Moscow has directed an insurgency against Kyiv's authority and has massed troops close to the Russia-Ukraine border.
A satellite image shows possible missile and rocket launcher implementations north-west of Yelsk in Belarus.
When Russia first got into Ukraine back in 2014, Lukashenko stayed studiously neutral, despite the fact Belarus and Russia are in theory part of one "Union State". He declined to identify annexed Crimea as Russian territory, and maintained warm relations with the then Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko.
Privately, he told Poroshenko he would not allow Belarusian territory to be used by Russia in any attack against Ukraine. When Volodymyr Zelenskiy was chosen in 2019, Lukashenko again extended the hand of friendship.
" You have never had any issues from the area of Belarus and with Belarus, you will never ever have them. We will always be the most kind and reliable of your supporters and partners," Lukashenko told Zelenskiy in October 2019.Then, in August 2020, big demonstrations appeared in Belarus when Lukashenko declared an overwhelming victory in a rigged presidential election. The protest movement came within a hair of falling his regime, however Lukashenko regained control with a crackdown.
After remaining quiet for some days, the Kremlin ultimately chose to back its frustrating ally, offering Lukashenko assistance and financial backing as most western countries enforced sanctions and refused to recognise the election results.
" Russia is gradually attempting to draw out the price for that support, and we're seeing Lukashenko do things that he's constantly withstood in the past," stated Nigel Gould-Davies, a previous British ambassador to Belarus and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The statement of the exercises, which followed Russia had currently started massing troops near the Ukrainian border, suggested Lukashenko's willingness to support Moscow. In recent weeks, he has made a number of demonstrative statements to show his loyalty is beyond doubt.
" For the west, it's important to drown the Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood in blood," Lukashenko said two weeks ago, speaking in his annual address in front of an audience of thousands. "However much some people may not like it, we will return Ukraine into our Slavic fold."In an interview this week with Vladimir Solovyov, a pro-Kremlin tv presenter, Lukashenko went even more, stating that if Ukraine released an assault on Donbas, he would send out Belarusian troops to fight along with Russian soldiers to repulse the attack.
"The Belarusian army will act in precisely the same way as the Russian army, it will be a joint response. Do you believe we're joking around on the southern border today?" he asked, referencing the joint training exercises. Lukashenko has actually likewise recently used to host Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Shraibman stated neither of these things were likely to take place, noting Lukashenko's usual mode was to promise a lot and then effort to extract concessions. "I think his deeds, actions will constantly be behind his promises. No matter what he promises to Putin it's not a given that he will really deliver," he said.
This was illustrated by a recent announcement in Moscow suggesting Belarus would send out troops to assist Russian forces in Syria, which was rapidly minimized by Lukashenko. Still, the Belarusian leader's space for manoeuvring has actually been significantly cut and he appears to have little choice but to permit Russia's military to utilize Belarusian territory how it pleases in the posturing against Ukraine.
With backing from Moscow and control over the security forces and army, Lukashenko's domestic position appears protected in the meantime, even as his diplomacy is increasingly more determined by Moscow. A lot of opposition figures have actually either been imprisoned or required to run away the country.
Later on this month, he will hold a constitutional referendum, commonly dismissed as invalid by western nations, that experts state is meant to pave the way for him to step back from the presidency at some time however keep overall control.
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who stood against Lukashenko in the rigged elections in 2020 and later got away to neighbouring Lithuania, has criticised the joint exercises and Lukashenko's support for Moscow's position on Ukraine. "Belarusians aren't a risk to Ukraine, the regime is," she said last week, after holding a video conference with several Ukrainian MPs.