Putin in Belarus for talks amid fears of new assault on Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart met in Minsk on Monday amid fears in Kyiv that Putin intends to pressure his ex-Soviet ally to join a fresh ground offensive. However, the two hardly mentioned the war raging in nearby Ukraine.

Russian forces used Belarus as a launch pad for invasion of Ukraine in February

Two men in black coats and black pants walk into a building which appears to have marble floors and walls. The shorter man is smiling. Behind them is a red carpet, and two men who appear to be bodyguards, who are dressed in black suits and black ties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko arrive for a meeting at the Palace of Independence in Minsk, Belarus, on Monday. (Konstantin Zavrazhin/Sputnik/Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart and close ally extolled the benefits of co-operation after Putin visited Minsk for the first time since 2019, hardly mentioning the war raging in nearby Ukraine at a joint news conference.

Russian forces used Belarus as a launch pad for their abortive attack on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in February, and there has been Russian and Belarusian military activity there for months.

But none of the journalists invited to speak asked Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko about the war.

They in turn devoted their answers to the ever-closer economic and defence alignment between their two former Soviet states — already formally allied in a somewhat nebulous "union" — and to the excitement of Sunday's World Cup soccer final in Qatar.

Putin's trip was his first to Minsk since 2019 — before the COVID-19 pandemic and a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2020 that Lukashenko crushed with strong support from the Kremlin.

Two men in black suits sit on yellow and white sofas, facing each other across a large, square, shiny wooden table.
Putin and Lukashenko talk during the Monday meeting. At a news conference following their meeting, the pair spoke about economic and defence ties, but barely mentioned the war in Ukraine. (Sputnik/The Associated Press)

Putin: 'No interest in absorbing' Belarus

Belarus's political opposition, largely driven into jail, exile or silence, fears a creeping Russian annexation or "absorption" of its much smaller Slavic neighbour. Both Putin and Lukashenko were at pains to dismiss the idea.

"Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone," Putin said. "There is simply no expediency in this."

Lukashenko, at one point calling Putin an "older brother," praised Russia as a friend that had "held out its hand to us," providing Belarus with oil and gas at discounted prices.

"Russia can manage without us, but we can't [manage] without Russia," he said.

Two men sit behind a wooden table, in front of a row of blue, red, green and gold flags. One man is looking ahead while the other is looking down and appears to be writing.
Putin and Lukashenko attend talks in Minsk on Monday, amid concerns that Putin plans to pressure Lukashenko to join a fresh ground offensive against Ukraine. (Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo/The Associated Press)

Belarus' veteran leader said the two countries had agreed on a new price for supplies of Russian gas, but declined to specify what it was before his government had discussed it.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that Belarus was Russia's "No. 1 ally" but that suggestions Moscow aims to pressure Minsk into joining what it calls its "special military operation" were "stupid and unfounded fabrications."

'Further aggression'

Ukrainian joint forces commander Serhiy Nayev had said he believed the talks would address "further aggression against Ukraine and the broader involvement of the Belarusian armed forces in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, also on the ground."

Ukraine's top general, Valery Zaluzhniy, told The Economist last week that Russia was preparing 200,000 fresh troops for a major offensive that could come from the east, south or even from Belarus as early as January, but more likely in spring.

Moscow and Minsk have set up a joint military unit in Belarus and held numerous exercises. Three Russian warplanes and an airborne early warning and control aircraft were deployed to Belarus last week.

But Lukashenko, a pariah in the West who relies heavily on Moscow for support, has repeatedly said Belarus will not enter the war in Ukraine. Foreign diplomats say committing Belarusian troops would be deeply unpopular at home.

About two-dozen men in suits sit around the outside of a very large wooden ring-shaped table. Two of the men are seated further away from the others, in front of a row of flags. The room has white walls, green velvet curtains, marble columns, and paintings on the walls.
Putin and Lukashenko, seen in front of a row of flags, dismissed the idea that Russia wants to 'absorb' Belarus while speaking with reporters after their meeting. (Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool Photo/The Associated Press)

Sanctions hit exports

Already, Western sanctions have made it hard for Belarus to ship potash fertilizers, its top export, via Baltic ports.

Western military analysts say Lukashenko's small army lacks the strength and combat experience to make a big difference — but that by forcing Ukraine to commit forces to its north, it could leave it more exposed to Russian assaults elsewhere.

The Pentagon said on Dec. 13 that it did not see "any type of impending cross-border activity by Belarus at this time."

Lukashenko said he and Putin would discuss a long-running effort to integrate their respective former Soviet republics in a supranational Union State. The talks are seen by the Belarus opposition as a vehicle for a creeping Russian annexation.

WATCH | Putin admits to setbacks in Eastern Ukraine: 

Putin admits to Russia’s difficulties in Eastern Ukraine

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Duration 2:04
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