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The stalled Russian offensive increases pressure on Belarus to join the invasion

Alexander Lukashenkothe authoritarian leader of Belarus, has allowed Russia to use his country’s territory to invade Ukraine, and changed its constitution so that it could accommodate Russian nuclear missiles.

But there is one bridge he has so far refused to cross: sending Belarusian troops to join the Russian assault on their mutual neighbor. “We will not interfere,” Lukashenko told a gathering of security officials this week. “No need.”

But as Russia’s invasion stalls In the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, officials in Kyiv have warned that Lukashenko – who survived major anti-regime protests in 2020 thanks largely to Kremlin support – may not be able to keep his troops on the fringes forever.

Ukraine recently accused Russia of a “false flag” attack on Belarus to draw it into the war. Last weekend, Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, claimed Russia was trying to persuade Belarusian soldiers to enter Ukrainian territory disguised as Russians. “They have a great desire to put Belarusian soldiers in Russian Federation uniforms,” ​​he said.

Belarus dismissed the false flag claims as “nonsense,” and opinion polls suggest Belarusians are strongly opposed to their soldiers taking part in the war. A senior US defense official said there was no evidence Belarus was sending troops to Ukraine or preparing to do so.

But as the war enters its fourth week, Russia needs reinforcement is becoming increasingly clear. US officials have estimated that about 6,000 Russians have died in the conflict so far.

Russia has not provided a number since March 2, when it said it had suffered 498 casualties. But in a tacit admission of his military woes, President Vladimir Putin gave his approval last week 16,000 “volunteers” from the Middle East to join the Russian cause.

Analysts say Lukashenko has limited ability to resist Russian pressure to join the fight.

For much of his nearly three decades in power, the former collective farm boss sought to maintain a degree of autonomy from Moscow by cultivating ties with the EU.

But that strategy collapsed in 2020 when Lukashenko launched one brutal crackdown to protests against his claim to have won a sixth straight term as president.

The West responded with harsh sanctions that hit key sectors of the Belarusian economy and made Lukashenko more dependent than ever on Russian political and economic support.

Katia Glod, a Belarus expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank, said of the chances of Belarusian troops joining the fighting: “It will all come down to whether Putin decides he needs them.”

She continued: “Especially with Russian troops in the country and under the current sanctions. Lukashenko is so economically dependent on Russia that he has no room for manoeuvre.”

Belarus’ military is small compared to Russia and Ukraine at just 45,000 men and has less combat experience. But given the heavy casualties Russia has suffered, a deployment of Belarusian forces could be beneficial to the Kremlin, said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst.

Mustache-wearing President Alexander Lukashenko took part in joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus in February © Maxim Guchek/Belta/AFP/Getty Images

“The Russians need corpses. They already had a few thousand Chechens and now they’re talking about flying in Syrians,” he said. “You really need a lot of manpower for the urban combat phase in particular, and that’s exactly what the Russians don’t have at the moment. So the idea of ​​​​filling with Belarusians. . . would actually make a lot of sense.”

Others are skeptical, both about Belarus’ military capabilities and its soldiers’ motivation to fight the Ukrainians.

“It certainly wouldn’t be critical,” said Mark Cancian, a former US Marine Corps colonel now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “That was the only way it could be . . . would be really significant if they were willing to open another front farther west.”

However, this would be a “high risk” strategy for Belarus, which would have to rely on its own inexperienced troops. “But it would [also] be a problem for Ukrainians in the sense that it would be another push they would have to defend against,” he added.

Michal Baranowski, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw, said it would be “very significant” if Belarusian forces could join the war and close Ukraine’s western border, as it is the main route for the influx of arms supplies from the Allies .

But he said closing a border that long would be a huge undertaking and was “very unlikely at the moment”.

“The biggest question is not how much public support there is [for Belarusian involvement], but how much room for maneuver Lukashenko has over Putin and how much he is a mere puppet,” he said. “If so, that would be the scenario where we could see Belarusian armed forces as part of the Russian military.”

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Bratislava

https://www.ft.com/content/8649947b-9280-4863-b354-cfa815babf2d The stalled Russian offensive increases pressure on Belarus to join the invasion

Adam Bradshaw

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