WRAPUP 5-Eyes on Belarus as Russia's ally and Ukraine's neighbour moves troops

Russia's ally Belarus said on Wednesday it was moving troops and military hardware to counteract what it called a threat of terrorism, amid signs Moscow could be pressuring Minsk to open a new front in the war against Ukraine.

Reuters | Updated: 07-12-2022 22:21 IST | Created: 07-12-2022 22:21 IST
WRAPUP 5-Eyes on Belarus as Russia's ally and Ukraine's neighbour moves troops

Russia's ally Belarus said on Wednesday it was moving troops and military hardware to counteract what it called a threat of terrorism, amid signs Moscow could be pressuring Minsk to open a new front in the war against Ukraine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who relied on Russian troops to put down a popular revolt two years ago, has allowed his country to serve as a staging ground for Russia's invasion of their neighbour.

He has so far kept his own army from joining it, but recent weeks have seen increasing signs of involvement in Belarus from Moscow. On Saturday, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu flew unannounced to the capital Minsk. He and Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin signed amendments to the two countries' security cooperation agreement, without disclosing the new terms. Thousands of Russian troops have deployed in Belarus since October, Ukraine says, and Belarus authorities have increasingly spoken of a threat of "terrorism" from partisans operating from across the border. Lukashenko has ordered his military to compile information about reservists by the end of this year.

On Wednesday the Belarus Security Council, quoted by state news agency Belta, said troops and hardware would be moving in the country over the next two days, with imitation weapons used for training. It gave no details about the number of troops or types of hardware that would be moved, or to what locations or of the nature of the training exercises. In Minsk, residents said there were no outward signs of unusual activity there.

STRATEGY SHIFT? In the past, some Western diplomats have been sceptical that Belarus would join the war, noting that it had a comparatively small military, and that Moscow would be wary of rekindling public opposition to Lukashenko that would weaken him for little gain, two years after mass protests that he violently quelled.

Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Belarusian opposition leader-in-exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, told Reuters he thought it would be "political suicide" for Lukashenko to send Belarusian troops into Ukraine. "Soldiers will not obey, elites will split, new protests will start. He (Lukashenko) knows this. Belarusians will not swallow this, and the whole system will crumble," he said.

"For Lukashenko the status quo is most desirable: he intensified repression, no one pays attention to (dissidents) anymore, and he receives Putin's assistance as an exclusive ally." Ukrainian officials have also said they doubted Russia had enough troops in Belarus to attack from there yet, and action near the border could be intended instead as a decoy.

The Institute for the Study of War think-tank said this month it believes Belarus is conducting an "information operation aimed at fixing Ukrainian forces on the border". But some analysts say the flurry of activity in recent weeks could also be a genuine sign Belarus might send troops.

"Belarus has actually been preparing to join the war on the Russian side for a few months. Every capability that they would need to go to war has been tested," Konrad Muzyka, a Belarus expert with Poland-based defence think-tank Rochan Consulting, told Reuters. He described drills on mobilising troops. "We cannot exclude the possibility that a decision has been made that Belarus could join the war... From a military indicators point of view, everything is pointing towards Belarusian armed forces taking a more belligerent stance."

Inside Ukraine, officials were working on Wednesday to restore power after damage from a barrage of Russian missile strikes launched on Monday, hours after apparent Ukrainian drone strikes on two airbases deep inside Russia. Ukraine has not directly claimed responsibility for the drone strikes but has celebrated the apparent demonstration of newfound capability to penetrate hundreds of kilometres into Russian air defences.

The United States has made clear to Ukraine its concerns

about any escalation of the war with Russia and did not encourage it to strike the two air bases, the White House's national security spokesman said on Wednesday. But "unlike the Russians, we respect Ukrainian sovereignty", including decisions about how Kiev uses weapons supplied by the United States, John Kirby told reporters in Washington.

Russia launched its "special military operation" in February saying Ukraine's close ties with the West posed a security threat. Kyiv and its allies say the invasion was an illegal war of aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday his army could be fighting in Ukraine for a long time, but he saw "no sense" in mobilising more soldiers at this point, after a call-up of 300,000 reservists in September and October.

Putin has rarely spoken about the war's likely duration, while Russia has been forced into a series of significant retreats since July. Putin also said the risk of a nuclear war was growing - the latest in a string of such Russian warnings aimed at deterring Western backers of Kyiv from more robust intervention - but that Russia would not threaten recklessly to use such weapons.

In eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, Russian shelling killed at least six people in the town of Kurakhove, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy wrote on the Telegram messaging app under video footage of buildings in flames. Kurakhove is in the eastern Donetsk region, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the war. Russia denies deliberately attacking civilians but cities across Ukraine have been pummelled by Russian forces.

Tens of thousands have died in the war, including at least 6,700 civilian deaths counted by the United Nations. In the latest international documentation of such allegations, the U.N. human rights office released a report on Wednesday detailing 441 civilians it said were killed by Russian forces in executions and attacks early in the war in the northern Kyiv, Sumy and Chernihiv regions.

The Russian foreign and defence ministries did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Russia has denied committing atrocities on occupied territory.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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