WARSAW — Amid mounting pressure from the Kremlin to increase support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus on Monday hosted a rare visit by his Russian counterpart Vladimir V. Putin.
Mr. Lukashenko, Mr. Putin’s closest ally is counting on Moscow for financial, fuel and security aid to sustain his 28-year grip on power. The two men have met at least six times since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, using Belarus as a launch pad for its failed attack on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. But these meetings all took place outside of Belarus, with most taking place in Russia.
After months of hiding in the Kremlin and on his countryside retreat near Moscow to stay away from Russia’s military and diplomatic backlash, Mr Putin has said in recent weeks he has attempted to project a more hands-on image. His trip to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Monday follows a visit to Kyrgyzstan last week and a visit to a Russian military command post at an undisclosed location on Friday.
Mr. Putin jumped down the steps of his plane in Minsk on Monday. Mr. Lukashenko was waiting there to greet him on the tarmac and Mr. Putin hugged him. It was Mr. Putin’s first visit to Belarus since 2019, according to Russian news agency Tass.
As Russia faltered on the battlefield, Mr Lukashenko has allowed Moscow to use his territory to launch missiles and bombing raids on Ukraine, but has so far resisted pressure from the Kremlin to send in his own troops. In statements reported by the state-run Belta news agency, the Belarusian strongman insisted his meeting with Mr Putin on Monday would focus on economic matters, particularly the price of Russian natural gas, on which Belarus is heavily dependent.
But he acknowledged that “of course we will not” avoid military issues and “we will talk about the defense capability and security of our state”.
The meeting follows repeated warnings from Ukraine in recent days that Russian forces could be preparing a new offensive from Belarus, either aimed at making another attempt to seize Kyiv, just about 55 miles from the Belarusian border , or cut off the flow of western arms into Ukraine from Poland.
However, many military experts believe that Russia’s military has been so badly battered by the nearly 10-month war that launching a new offensive from Belarus with or without the participation of Belarusian troops is not a condition.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, said in a report released on Friday that a new Russian push into Ukraine is unlikely because “there is still no evidence that Russian forces in Belarus are a force form”.
Defense ministers of Russia and Belarus signed an unspecified deal earlier this month to strengthen military ties, and last week Belarus said it was reviewing its troops’ combat readiness. The last time this happened just days before Russia invaded Ukraine from its territory.
But the frenzy of military activity in Belarus, including the arrival of thousands of Russian troops ostensibly for training purposes, may be part of an elaborate ruse aimed at forcing Ukraine to divert its troops northward from active fronts in the country’s east and south . Konrad Muzyka, an independent defense analyst, said open-source intelligence suggests that Russia engaged between 10,000 and 15,000 troops in training activities in Belarus, although that’s a fraction of the number they had when they launched the full-scale invasion started.
Nevertheless, Mr. Putin’s meeting with Mr. Lukashenko, according to the Institute for the Study of War, “will step up the Russian intelligence operation aimed at convincing Ukrainians and Westerners that Russia could attack Ukraine from Belarus.”
Whatever Russia’s goals, concerns are growing in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy held a meeting with his defense and security chiefs on Sunday at which Belarus was “the main item on the agenda,” his office said in a statement. Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Mr Zelenskyy, told the New York Times on Sunday that Ukraine is preparing for the possibility that Russia will escalate the war through a winter offensive.
In an unusual public admission that he believes he is so committed to Moscow that he can only comply with his demands, Mr Lukashenko on Friday dismissed as untrue talk that “there is no longer any power in Belarus, that the Russians already have everything govern” and insists: “No one but us governs Belarus.”
Markus Santora contributed reporting.