Lukashenko speaks about Belarus’ military moves and the war in Ukraine

Lukashenko speaks about Belarus’ military moves and the war in Ukraine

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President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, Russia’s closest ally, tried on Thursday to allay suspicions in neighboring Ukraine that recent military moves inside his country could herald a new ground offensive against the country.

At a military conference, Mr Lukashenko dismissed as “conspiracy theories” recent speculation by some Ukrainian officials that a suddenly announced combat readiness review could be a precursor to a deployment of Belarusian forces in support of Russia.

While he insisted that the drills, which also involved thousands of Russian troops, were confined to his country’s territory, he raised the possibility that Belarus could eventually be drawn into the fighting in Ukraine.

“If you want peace, prepare for war,” Mr Lukashenko said. “We have been conducting exercises,” he added, referring to joint exercises with Russia that have been expanded in recent weeks in response to what the Belarusian leader described as “the current situation and threats.”

The comments came days after Russia’s Vladimir V Putin visited Belarus to strengthen ties with Mr Lukashenko, raising fears in Ukraine and its western allies that a fresh Russian ground offensive could once again target Kyiv, some 55 miles to the south the Belarusian border.

Mr Lukashenko is a close ally of Mr Putin, partly because Belarus is dependent on Moscow for fuel and security. And although Lukashenko has resisted being drawn centrally into the war since February, when Russia used eastern Belarus as a base for its all-out invasion of Ukraine, he has come under increasing pressure from Moscow.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov this week dismissed speculation that Belarus would be directly involved in the conflict as “completely stupid” and “unfounded fabrications”.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, said Russia is unlikely to build a new military force in Belarus. It’s more likely, the group said, that the spate of military activity is part of a broader effort to divert Kiev’s troops from the front lines in eastern and southern Ukraine.

But increasing pressure from Moscow is restricting Mr Lukashenko’s “room to maneuver to avoid concessions to the Kremlin,” the institute said on Tuesday. It also said Mr Putin “gifted” his ally an unspecified number of S-400 air defense systems during his visit to Minsk this week, a move the Belarusian leader has declined in recent years. The air defense systems are likely to be operated by Russian troops stationed in Belarus, the group said.

“Lukashenko is likely delaying accession to Putin’s larger demands — such as requiring Belarusian forces to join the invasion of Ukraine — by making minor concessions that he has blocked for years,” the group said.

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