Russian troops in Belarus spur debate on threat to Ukraine

RIGA, Latvia — Russia is massing thousands of troops in its western neighbor Belarus, raising fears that Moscow is considering opening a new front in its war against Ukraine, but Kyiv officials in Washington doubt the military build-up poses a serious threat.

With Russia already struggling to defend its territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, it cannot afford to engage in another fight on a third front in the north, on the border with Belarus, according to managers and analysts.

“We have to be careful, but I doubt that the Russians are at this moment able to open another front line against Ukraine, at least not a successful front,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said on Friday. . He said some 10,000 members of Kremlin forces were gathering in Belarus, possibly in an attempt to disrupt the flow of Western weapons to Ukraine from Poland.

“They might be able to disrupt something, but it wouldn’t be like February” when the Russian military onslaught began, said Mr Pabriks, whose country is a NATO member, bordering Belarus and Russia, in an interview in Riga, the Latvian capital. “They are too weak now in my opinion.”

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in an intelligence assessment on Friday that the flurry of military activity in Belarus is “likely an attempt to demonstrate Russian-Belarusian solidarity and convince Ukraine to divert forces to guard the northern border “.

Some Western officials say the Russian move is likely just a feint or practice mission, while others say it could be preparation for an attack, even if it isn’t. probably not very effective, but their views come with a high degree of uncertainty.

Those who think a new offensive is possible say it would probably not target Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital – which the Russians failed to capture with a push out of Belarus at the start of the invasion – but far in the west, near the border with Poland, to disrupt Western deliveries of arms and other supplies.

But diving into western Ukraine near the Polish border would be “very, very risky” for both Belarusian strongman Aleksandr G. Lukashenko and the Kremlin because the region is the “traditional heart of Ukrainian nationalism,” said Valery Kavaleuski. , a former Belarusian diplomat and now foreign affairs adviser to his country’s exiled opposition movement. “It would be suicidal, a very bad idea but who knows what they might do,” he added.

Ukrainian forces, armed by the United States and others, have been on the offensive since early September, retaking ground the Russians seized at the start of the war. Within NATO, which has closely watched the ebb and flow of Moscow’s forces, many officials doubt that President Vladimir V. Putin’s army, battered and demoralized by nearly eight months of war, has the will or the means to open a new front.

On Friday, there was heavy fighting in Luhansk province to the east, and there were signs that the Kremlin could abandon parts of Kherson province to the south, which would mean the surrender of territory seized to the start of the war and which Mr. Putin last week declared part of the Russian Federation.

Also on Friday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and his Russian counterpart Sergei K. Shoigu spoke by phone for the first time since May and only the second time since the start of the war. Their respective offices confirmed in statements that the call took place and involved Ukraine, but gave no details or whether Belarus was discussed.

Mr Lukashenko, the increasingly Moscow-dependent Belarusian president, announced last week that his country and Russia were forming a new joint military force, with 70,000 Belarusian soldiers and up to 15,000 Russians, supposedly to guard against NATO.

A Ukrainian general, Oleksiy Gromov, said on Thursday that the threat of a possible invasion of Belarus was growing. But Ukraine’s military intelligence agency sees no immediate danger, a spokesman, Vadym Skibitsky, said in an interview on Friday.

Several thousand newly mobilized Russian troops are deployed in Belarus at training sites, Mr. Skibitsky said, but they are not accompanied by the tanks, artillery or tankers and other logistical support they would need to invade and confront the seasoned Ukrainian troops.

“We see these elements moving now in Belarus, but we don’t see the movement of equipment,” he said.

Mr Putin used the territory of Belarus, his closest military and political ally, as a staging ground for his February invasion and his forces have since launched missiles and drones into Ukraine from there. But Mr Lukashenko resisted Russian pressure to become more involved in the war.

But Michael R. Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Vienna, warned in a phone interview that Russia and Belarus had both shrouded the goal of their new joint force in an opaque fog that makes it “difficult”. to say if there is some kind of operation being prepared from Belarus or if it is just an attempt to corner the Ukrainian troops.

The British assessment said it was unlikely that Russia had actually deployed significant forces and added that Belarus “maintains a minimum capability to undertake a complex operation”.

Air Force Brigadier. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, also downplayed the likelihood of a Russian invasion from Belarus: “We currently have no indication of potential imminent military action on that front,” a- he said during a briefing on Thursday.

Many Western and Ukrainian officials believe Belarus’ main role will be to help Russia train new recruits, many of whom have no military experience, before sending them to Ukraine.

Russia’s own training facilities have been stretched to breaking point since Mr Putin last month ordered the conscription of 300,000 troops to support his faltering war effort. Some conscripts were sent to the front lines with minimal preparation; some have already been killed.

Mr Lukashenko held power for 28 years with Moscow’s backing, while fending off a year-long push by Mr Putin to, in effect, merge their countries, ending Belarus’ independence.

Mr Pabriks, the Latvian defense minister, said Mr Lukashenko was “moving things to the left, moving things to the right, pretending he was doing things, but obviously the Russian tide is against it. him “.

“Lukashenko is trying to maneuver in an increasingly narrow space. Obviously Putin is trying to involve Belarus more in his war against Ukraine, but Lukashenko understands that it would be the end of his time if he did,” Pabriks said.

Mr Lukashenko, he added, had become so dependent on Russia for his own political survival that “Russia controls his country and we should probably assume that there will be more involvement from the Belarusian side against the Ukrainians. , but I highly doubt that it would bring great benefits to Russia.

Visiting the region west of Brest near the border with Poland on Thursday, Mr Lukashenko inspected Belarusian-made drones and other military equipment, saying it would be “undesirable” for such equipment to be used in Ukraine, according to the state statement. the Belta agency reported. He called Ukrainians “our own people”, echoing Mr Putin’s line that the people of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus are one Slavic nation divided by the machinations of the West.

Mr Lukashenko, according to Belta, also said Belarusians should ignore what he described as “groans” about his government launching a campaign of clandestine mobilization, adding that it was necessary for troops to s lead “but no war today”. We don’t need it.

He made a similar statement in February just days before Russia invaded Ukraine from its territory.

On Friday, Ukraine’s armed forces said in a statement that if the country were attacked it would “respond as fiercely as we respond to all occupiers”. He also said that in the event that Belarusian troops were ordered to attack, they would have to disobey their leaders and surrender.

The report was provided by Andrew E. Kramer in Kyiv, Cassandra Vinograd in London and Tomas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania.