Russia’s closest ally, Belarus, could formally join the war in Ukraine in the coming days if Moscow concludes that Ukraine has “used force” against Russia or Belarus, a senior official in the Russian foreign ministry warned on Friday.
“Any use of force by the Kiev regime or a Ukrainian military invasion of Belarus or Russia would be enough to trigger a collective response,” Aleksey Polishchuk, a director of the Russian Foreign Ministry, told me. to TASS, referring to the so-called Union State that Belarus and Russia formed together years ago, into which the countries entangled their banking, military and economic sectors.
“The republic has the sovereign right to defend its territory with all available means and Minsk can count on Russia’s full support here,” Polishchuk said.
The warning comes as fears mount that Russia may be preparing a renewed offensive against Ukraine in the new year that could be launched northwest of Ukraine from Belarus. Since the outbreak of war last February, Russia has repeatedly used Belarus as a launching pad for attacks on Ukraine, including Russia’s failed attempt to storm and take Kiev.
Last week, Ukraine’s top military intelligence official warned Russia to brace itself for attacks “deeper and deeper” into Russian territory, following several suspected Ukrainian attacks inside Russia itself last month.
The diplomat did not clarify what Russia or Belarus would consider “use of force,” which leaves room for the Kremlin to justify a slew of activities against Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities have also been monitoring the potential threat from Belarus in recent days. Yurii Ihnat, a spokesman for the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, warned that missile strikes could come from Belarus in the coming days, according to The protector.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who warned Russia could launch a new offensive in 2023, said Ukraine “must be ready” on the border with Belarus.
Zelensky gathered senior aides in Lviv this week to “discuss the condition and reinforcement of the fortifications on the border, as well as material support from border guards and military personnel in the regions bordering Belarus,” according to Polish Radio.
Russia has been preparing the Belarusian army for months. According to Belta, the Supreme Commander of Russian Ground Forces, Army General Oleg Salyukov, visited Belarus this week to inspect whether the Belarusian regional force was ready. Air defense units of the Belarusian Regional Force have been reinforced this week, deployed and also taken up combat duty, Belta reported. Belarus also began a rapid combat readiness inspection this week.
It is not clear how quickly Russia can launch a new offensive in Ukraine. Russia’s resources have been strained in recent days by fierce fighting in Ukraine’s Soledar. The status of the city was not immediately clear on Friday after heavy fighting. Russia’s defense ministry claimed it had taken Soledar, while a spokesman for Ukrainian forces in the east of the country denied Russia had won the battle. Russian forces have tried and failed for months to take the nearby city of Bakhmut as well.
And while Russia’s logistics, command and morale have been faltering in the last ten months of the war, there are some indications that Moscow is seeking a renewed war plan.
Earlier this week, the Kremlin promoted General Valery Gerasimov to become commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, replacing General Sergei Surovikin, who had led the armed forces for three months. A return to Gerasimov, who previously led Russian forces into the war in their failed blitz to take over all of Ukraine in days, could indicate Moscow is looking to ramp up its assault on Ukraine in the new year.
The U.S. Department of Defense has ruled that Gerasimov’s promotion is “probably” a reflection of “systemic challenges faced by the Russian military … logistical problems, command and control … morale and the major failure to deliver the strategic achieve goals they have set for themselves,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday.
Turning to Gerasimov can also be a sign of desperation. British intelligence believes his promotion could underline “the increasing seriousness of the situation facing Russia”.