Belarus Bolsters Military Readiness, Stoking Fears It Could Join Ukraine Conflict

Dimitri Simes | December 11, 2022 | 4:21pm EST
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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu looks on.  (File photo by Alexey Druzhinin / RIA Novosti / AFP via Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu looks on. (File photo by Alexey Druzhinin / RIA Novosti / AFP via Getty Images)

Moscow ( – Stepped-up military activities and drills by Belarus are fueling growing concerns that the longtime Russian ally could be preparing to open a second front against Ukraine.

The small Eastern European nation began redeploying its troops and military equipment last week in what it says is a snap counterterrorism exercise. Belarusian security officials stated that the drills would require a temporary restriction of civilian vehicles among certain public roads, but provided few other details.

At the same time, lawmakers in the lower house of parliament voted to impose the penalty for officials and soldiers convicted of “high treason.” The proposed legislation also seeks to punish those who “discredit” the military with jail terms of up to four years.

The moves came shortly after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Minsk on December 4, where he met with President Alexander Lukashenko and signed an amended military cooperation agreement between the two countries.

During their meeting, Lukashenko told Shoigu that Russian and Belarusian troops were currently training as a “single army” and closely coordinating on logistical issues.

“We are getting ready today,” he said. “Everybody knows about it. We are not hiding it. In today’s world, it is impossible to hide such things.”

Lukashenko did not elaborate on what Russia and Belarus were preparing for, although he alluded to potential “aggression” from Western governments earlier in his remarks.

Belarus is a landlocked country of 9.3 million people situated between Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics. The former Soviet republic is one of Moscow’s closest military and economic allies. Lukashenko, who has ruled since 1994, began drawing even closer to Russia after a crackdown of mass protests against his rule in 2020 led to a new wave of Western sanctions against the country.

In the lead up to the Ukraine conflict, Russia deployed large amounts of soldiers and equipment in Belarus as part of a weeks-long military exercise between the two countries.

When the Kremlin launched its “special military operation” in late February, Russian troops used Belarus as a springboard for an offensive on Kyiv. Since then, numerous Russian missile strikes against Ukraine have been fired from the territory of Belarus.

At the same time, the Belarusian military has avoided direct participation in the fighting. In his public statements, Lukashenko has repeatedly declared that Minsk is prepared to facilitate a diplomatic settlement.

Tensions between Belarus and Ukraine have escalated in recent months, however. In early October, the Belarusian Ministry of Defense announced that it was forming a joint regional grouping with Moscow comprising 9,000 Russian troops and large numbers of tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery. Lukashenko also ordered the ministry to verify the data of all citizens viable for military service before the end of the year.

The moves sparked protests from Kyiv. Oleksiy Gromov, deputy chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, told reporters in late October that there were “growing” signs that the Russian military was preparing to launch another offensive into northern Ukraine from the territory of Belarus.

He added that such an offensive would likely be aimed at cutting “the main logistical arteries for the supply of weapons and military equipment” from Western governments to Ukraine.

The Biden administration offered a more cautious assessment, with National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby saying the U.S. hadn’t “seen any indication that Belarus is willing to come in tangibly inside Ukraine and fight.” It suggested instead that the buildup in Belarus was likely an attempt to force the Ukrainian military to divert troops to protect its northern border.

For his part, Lukashenko has repeatedly insisted that Belarus has no plans of sending its troops into Ukraine. Belarus has however accused Ukraine and NATO of planning strikes inside Belarus with the help of “radical fighters” from the opposition movement. In late October, the Belarusian KGB claimed to have uncovered a Ukrainian military “spy ring” operating in the country.

Ukraine has sought to prepare for a possible new offensive from Belarus by blowing up bridges and mining roads along its northern border. It also began construction of a border wall last month.

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