Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Belarus on Monday along with his defense and foreign ministers, fanning fears in Kyiv that he intends to pressure his ex-Soviet ally to join a fresh ground offensive that would open a new front against Ukraine.
Putin, whose troops have been driven back in Ukraine’s north, northeast and south since invading, is taking a more public role in the war. He visited his operation headquarters on Friday to sound out military commanders.
His trip for talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko came as Moscow launched a drone attack hitting key infrastructure in and around Kyiv.
The Ukrainian Air Force said its air defenses shot down 30 drones, in the third Russian air attack on the Ukrainian capital in six days and the latest in a series of assaults since October that have targeted the Ukrainian power grid, causing sweeping blackouts amid sub-freezing temperatures.
Officials said at least three people were wounded and nine buildings damaged in the Kyiv region.
There has been constant Russian and Belarusian military activity for months in Belarus, a close Kremlin ally that Moscow’s troops used as a launch pad for their abortive attack on Kyiv in February.
But this is Putin's first trip 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.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that Belarus was Russia’s “number one ally” but that suggestions Moscow aims to pressure Minsk into joining what it calls its “special military operation” were “stupid and unfounded fabrications.
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.
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.”
The 10-month-old conflict in Ukraine is the biggest in Europe since World War Two, killing tens of thousands of people, driving millions from their homes and reducing cities to ruins.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his armed forces were holding firm in the town of Bakhmut — scene of the fiercest fighting for many weeks as Russia attempts to advance in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
“The battlefield in Bakhmut is critical,” he said. “We control the town even though the occupiers are doing everything so that no undamaged wall will remain standing.”
Zelenskyy on Monday called on Western leaders meeting in Latvia, including British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, to supply a wide range of weapons systems.
utin casts what he calls Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine as the moment when Moscow finally stood up to the U.S.-led Western bloc seeking to capitalize on the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union by destroying Russia.
Kyiv and the West say that assertion is absurd and that Putin has no justification for what they see as an imperial-style war of aggression that has put Russia in control of around a fifth of Ukraine.
Moscow said on Monday Russian and Chinese forces would hold joint naval drills between Dec. 21 and Dec. 27, involving missile and artillery firing in the East China Sea.
While the drills have been held annually since 2012, Moscow has sought to strengthen its political, security and economic links with Beijing in recent months and sees Chinese President Xi Jinping as a key ally in an anti-West alliance.