The announcement last week that Belarus and Russia would form a joint regional force and carry out exercises set off alarm bells in Kyiv.
The last time Belarusian and Russian forces held joint exercises, in February, many of those Russian forces went on to cross the Ukrainian border in their ill-fated drive toward the capital.
It’s not that Belarus has a mighty army – it doesn’t. But the prospect of Ukraine’s long northern border becoming a passageway for Russian forces for the second time this year would be a nightmare for Ukraine’s already stretched forces. Ukraine and Belarus share a 1,000-kilometer frontier, much of it sparsely populated and thickly forested.
At the moment, the Ukrainian army is conducting offensives in the east and south while holding off Russian forces in parts of Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia. After seven months of war, the Ukrainian military has suffered attrition just like its enemy: moving forces to defend its northern flank would stretch forces already fighting on multiple fronts.
Predictably enough, Belarus says the joint force is purely defensive. The country’s Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin said that “all activities carried out at the moment are aimed at providing a sufficient response to activities near our borders.”
Those activities, according to Belarus, are aimed at deterring Ukrainian preparations to attack the country. Lukashenko said last week that his government had been “warned about strikes against Belarus from the territory of Ukraine.”
Ukraine has vehemently denied the claims. The Foreign Ministry said it “categorically rejects these latest insinuations by the Belarusian regime. We cannot rule out that this diplomatic note may be part of a provocation on the part of the Russian Federation.”