After months of isolation in Russia, with an extremely restricted schedule of visits and meetings inside and outside the country, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Belarus on Monday to meet with authoritarian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko.
With the visit, the Kremlin chief's first to the country since 2019, Putin has shown his attempt to further strengthen ties with Minsk and his intention to advance the union agreements that both countries signed in 1999. "Our enemies seek to stop the integration of Russia and Belarus", Putin stressed in an appearance after the meeting, in which he assured that Moscow does not want to "absorb" anyone.
Together with him, Lukashenko spoke of the importance of the "support" of the Kremlin and of his "older brother", Putin,
as well as the need to make a common front in the face of Western sanctions.
The Belarusian announced that the Iskander and S-400 missiles, which Russia installed a couple of months ago in the neighboring country, are ready to launch.
The meeting - in which Putin and Lukashenko spoke of a "common defense space" and after which they announced that Russia will train Belarusian aviation to handle planes carrying nuclear warheads - came amid growing concerns and warnings. Ukraine that Moscow could be preparing another offensive from Belarus.
The Kremlin has again concentrated troops in that country, where it has been carrying out joint maneuvers and training hundreds of recruits mobilized for the war.
Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron fist for decades and who received the support of the Kremlin in its violent crackdown on the 2020 anti-electoral fraud and democracy protests — a bolster that was instrumental in staying in power —, It has remained in a precarious balance during the 10 months that the invasion of Ukraine lasted.
Minsk has not joined Russia's war, but it allowed Putin to use his territory, with more than a thousand kilometers of border with Ukraine, as a stage from which to start the invasion in February.
In addition, he has allowed the Kremlin to use Belarus as a launching pad for missiles and drones against Ukraine.
Putin, who in recent months, amid the military setbacks in Ukraine, has launched a campaign of visits to other somewhat closer countries, such as Kyrgyzstan, stumbled down the stairs of his plane in Minsk on Monday, where Lukashenko he has received him with a traditional offering of bread and salt.
The Russian Defense Ministers, Sergei Shoigu, and Foreign Ministers, Sergei Lavrov, have also traveled to Belarus, where, according to the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, the agenda has focused on the "political-military situation" and on economic issues, like the sale of gas, which Moscow offers to Minsk cheap.
Both autocrats spoke of economic and energy issues as their "priority," Putin said.
Despite this statement, the defensive strategy -and its edges- also had an important role in the talks.
They agreed, the Kremlin chief said, to continue taking "jointly" measures "to ensure security" as well as "mutual deliveries of weapons and work together on the production of new military equipment."
Hours earlier, the Belarusian Defense Ministry had announced that up to 9,000 Russian servicemen and several hundred armored vehicles would arrive in the republic to create a joint group of troops to be part of the "joint regional groups" created by Minsk and Moscow in October. to function "as a single army", in the face of what they called "the aggravation of the western borders".
Russia has already moved MiG-31K fighter jets there, according to the independent Belarusian think tank Hajun.
In addition to joint exercises, the Belarusian army has conducted solo military exercises in recent weeks to check "combat readiness" and ended hours before Putin's arrival in Minsk, according to state agencies.
Also, in early December,
Lukashenko, who in recent days had been defensive, stressing that Belarus is a sovereign country and that only he makes decisions, ironized this Monday about the "concern" of the West over the proximity between Moscow and Minsk and their meetings. constant with Putin;
In three years they have seen each other 12 times, always in Russia except this Monday.
"The strengthening of relations between Belarus and Russia has become a natural response to the changing situation in the world, where our strength is constantly being tested," said the Belarusian authoritarian leader in an intervention reported by state media.
"Today we can unequivocally affirm: together we were able not only to survive, but also to find opportunities for the development of our economies," Lukashenko emphasized.
who has ensured that the greater integration between Russia and Belarus shows that only together is it possible to overcome sanctions, pandemics or crises.
"Russia can manage without us, but we can't without Russia," she said.
offensive from the north
The Ukrainian government has warned that Russia may be preparing the ground for another major escalation this winter, between the end of January and February.
High officials of the Executive of Volodímir Zelenski even speak of the fact that the Kremlin may be considering launching itself on kyiv again.
This Sunday, Zelensky stressed that Ukraine is ready "for all possible scenarios."
"Protecting our border with both Russia and Belarus is our constant priority," he said after a meeting with the military high command.
kyiv receives weapons from its Western allies and is waiting for more shipments of anti-aircraft batteries and a new economic aid package from the EU to try to keep the country afloat.
This Monday, in the midst of a new wave of attacks with suicide drones against kyiv and critical infrastructure points in the country, and against the backdrop of the meeting between Putin and Lukashenko, President Zelenski has renewed his requests for more defense material to Western leaders.
Putin's visit to Lukashenko in Minsk is viewed with concern in the EU.
In fact, the German government has shown its uneasiness on Monday: a spokesman for the Executive, Steffen Hebestreit, has stated that Chancellor Olaf Scholz is concerned about the trip.
"Of course, there are concerns about what this visit could entail: whether the role of Belarus in Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine will change or be modified once again," Hebestreit said at a briefing in which he noted that Berlin would wait for the end of the talks between Putin and Lukashenko to draw any conclusions.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based organization, has suggested that with his visit, Putin may be trying to set the conditions for a renewed offensive, possibly against northern Ukraine or over kyiv in the winter of 2023. Although, like other analysts, he is also relatively skeptical: “It remains extremely unlikely that Belarusian forces would invade Ukraine without a Russian strike force,” the ISW report says.
“It is not at all clear that Lukashenko would commit Belarusian forces to fight in Ukraine, even alongside Russian troops,” he adds.
Some experts believe that Putin's new rapprochement with Belarus is an attempt to divert Ukrainian troops to that area so that they reinforce the borders and immobilize them there so that they do not deploy in other areas.
These weeks, the Kremlin is focusing its offensive on Donbas, where they are trying to capture the city of Bakhmut, ravaged by bombs and where only 10% of its inhabitants remain.
There, the fighting is already constant, with groups of mercenaries from the Wagner group launching raids on the city.
Western intelligence sources point out that the Belarusian troops are not of great interest to Moscow, however, their bases and the territory of Belarus would be useful.
Both as a stage for offensive, launch and withdrawal, and to train their mobilized there.
Other sources think that Moscow may be preparing another offensive, but not to advance towards kyiv, but to go further west, closer to Poland, and interrupt or slow down the inflow of arms from Ukraine's partners and also humanitarian and logistics with which the allies are trying to support kyiv to rebuild its civil and energy infrastructure, which keeps the population on edge in the dead of winter.
Voices related to the Wagner mercenary group have stated these days on their Telegram messaging channels that the intention is to disrupt the border between Poland and Ukraine as much as possible.
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