Belarus Wavers as Putin Presses It to Join Ukraine War | The New York Times

The country’s strongman, Aleksandr Lukashenko, finds himself in a bind. He survives with support from Russia, but entering the fight could be “political suicide.”

by UKCHP_Admin

WARSAW — When huge street protests swept across Belarus two years ago after a fraud-tainted election, the Eastern European nation’s strongman leader, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, was propped up by the Kremlin, which sent security officers and money to support him.

Today, eight months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Lukashenko’s Russian-enabled grip on power risks slipping as Moscow pressures him to get more involved in the faltering military campaign next door in Ukraine.

Russia started its invasion of Ukraine in February with an abortive thrust toward Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, from Belarusian territory. With his forces now largely bogged down or in retreat, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is looking to Mr. Lukashenko for more robust support.

After a meeting with Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg last weekend, Mr. Lukashenko on Monday told military and security officials that Ukraine, Poland and NATO were “trying to drag us into a fight.”

“We must not let them drag us into a war,” he added.

His remarks, though aimed at NATO, revealed a deep unease with what Western and Ukrainian officials believe is increasing Russian pressure to send Belarusian forces to fight.

Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst who fled to Poland after a brutal crackdown on postelection protests in 2020, cautioned that it was unclear exactly what Mr. Putin had asked of the Belarusian leader in St. Petersburg, but, he added, “it is very clear that Lukashenko is not yet willing to join the war” because of the immense political risks that would bring.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a Belarusian opposition leader and a 2020 presidential candidate now in exile, this week described any direct entry into the war by her country as “political suicide” for Mr. Lukashenko.

There has been a flurry of troop movement and other military activity across Belarus in recent days. But among the most conspicuous movements reported by the Belarusian Hajun project, which monitors military activity, has been the transfer by rail of Belarusian tanks and other equipment to Russia and away from territory near Ukraine, apparently to help bolster Moscow’s dwindling stock of hardware.

The Institute for the Study of War, an American research group, has assessed as “highly unlikely” the possibility that Belarus becomes directly involved in the war.

Even without entering the conflict directly, however, Mr. Lukashenko is already struggling with a host of new dangers created by Mr. Putin’s invasion. These include a steady flow of opposition activists, who were previously committed to nonviolent protest, going to Ukraine to take up arms against Russia.

These volunteer fighters have so far stayed away from Belarusian territory but have already radicalized an opposition movement that now, for the first time, has training with modern weapons and experience in combat.

“We have two goals. We are helping to defend Ukraine against Russia but also advancing the time of Belarus’s own liberation from Lukashenko,” said Vadim Kabanchuk, a deputy commander of the Kalinouski Regiment, a volunteer force helping Ukraine that he said has nearly 500, mostly Belarusian, fighters.

“The main reason Lukashenko has survived so long is support from Putin. If Putin exhausts his resources in Ukraine he will have less left to support Lukashenko,” Mr. Kabanchuk, 47, added in an interview this week during a visit to the Polish capital, Warsaw, where he was recruiting volunteer fighters among members of Poland’s large Belarusian diaspora.

A senior Ukrainian intelligence official said the Belarusian fighters, integrated into Ukraine’s International Legion, were important symbolically but numbered fewer than claimed by Mr. Kabanchuk. A second group of armed Belarusians, Pahonia, is also fighting in Ukraine but is even smaller.

Mr. Lukashenko’s security services are nonetheless taking these forces seriously.

Ivan Tertel, the head of Belarus’s security service, which still uses its Soviet-era name, K.G.B., warned last week that the Kalinouski Regiment and other “armed formations” were being “prepared in Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania in pursuit of their goal of seizing power in the Republic of Belarus by force.” Poland and Lithuania, which share borders with Belarus, are both members of NATO.

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