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 putting pressure on its loyal client to open a new front in the war against Ukraine.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who relied on Russian troops to put down a popular revolt two years ago, has allowed Belarus to serve as a staging ground for Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, but has so far kept his own army from joining.
But recent weeks have seen increasing signs of involvement in Belarus from Moscow, culminating on Saturday when Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu flew unannounced to Minsk, the capital. He and Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin signed amendments to the two countries’ security co-operation agreement, without disclosing the new terms.
Thousands of Russian troops have been deployed in Belarus since October, Ukraine says, and Belarusian 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.
Putin acknowledges operation taking longer than expected
The move came as Russian President Vladimir Putin acknowledged that his “special military operation” in Ukraine is taking longer than expected. In a televised meeting in Russia with members of his Human Rights Council, he also hailed the seizure of his neighbour’s territory as a major achievement and said his country’s nuclear weapons are deterring escalation of the conflict.
“Of course, it could be a lengthy process,” Putin said of the more than nine-month-old war, which has displaced millions from their homes and killed and wounded tens of thousands. Despite its length, he showed no signs of letting up, vowing to “consistently fight for our interests” and to “protect ourselves using all means available.”
Putin reiterated his claim that he had no choice but to send in troops, saying that for years, the West responded to Russia’s security demands with “only spit in the face.”
In his remarks, the Russian leader didn’t address Russia’s battlefield setbacks or its attempts to cement control over the seized regions, but acknowledged problems with supplies, treatment of wounded soldiers and limited desertions.
In the latest move by Belarus, the country’s Security Council, quoted by state news agency BelTA, said troops and hardware would be moving in the country over the next two days. Access to some roads and transport links would be restricted, and imitation weapons would be used for training, it said.
It gave no details about the number of troops or types of hardware that would be moved, the location of roads and transport links that would be shut, or of the nature of the training exercises. Residents in Minsk said there were no outward signs of unusual activity there.
Ukraine suspects decoy
In the past, some Western diplomats have been skeptical that Belarus would join the war, noting that it had a comparatively small military, and that Moscow would be wary of provoking public opposition that would weaken Lukashenko for little gain.
Ukrainian officials have also said they think Russia did not have enough troops in Belarus to assault 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 keeping Ukrainian forces near the border.
But some analysts say the flurry of activity in recent weeks could also be a genuine sign Belarus might send troops.
‘A more belligerent stance’
“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, describing drills on mobilizing troops and even running the post office in wartime.
“We cannot exclude the possibility that a decision has been made that Belarus could join the war. I don’t know whether this has happened, but from a military indicators point of view, everything is pointing toward Belarusian armed forces taking a more belligerent stance.”
Within Ukraine, officials were working on Wednesday to restore power after damage in the latest barrage of Russian missile strikes, launched on Monday hours after apparent Ukrainian drone strikes on two airbases deep inside Russia.
WATCH | Video shows alleged Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian airfields:
Ukraine has not directly claimed responsibility for the drone strikes but has celebrated the apparent demonstration of a newfound capability to penetrate hundreds of kilometres into Russia’s air defences.
“They will have less aviation equipment after being damaged due to these mysterious explosions,” said Yurii Ihnat, spokesperson for the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “This is undoubtedly excellent news because if one or two aircraft fail, then in the future, some more aircraft may fail in some way. This reduces their capabilities.”
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. Tens of thousands have died in the war, including at least 6,700 civilians counted by the United Nations. Russia denies intentionally targeting civilians or committing atrocities on occupied territory.
441 civilians killed early in the war: UN
In the latest international documentation of such allegations, the UN 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 actual number of victims in the three regions was likely to be much higher, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said. The report looked at the period from the invasion’s start on Feb. 24 until early April, when Russian forces were driven from those areas.
Many of the bodies documented in the new report bore signs that the victims might have been intentionally killed, the report found.
Meanwhile, the government in Kyiv and the Western countries that have backed it with billions in military aid are scrambling along with the United Nations and aid groups to get blankets, insulation, generators, medical supplies, cash and more essentials into the invaded country as winter looms.
Millions of Ukrainians are without regular access to heat, electricity and water in sub-freezing temperatures, Martin Griffiths, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the UN Security Council on Tuesday. Some have no access at all, he said.
“In Ukraine today, the ability of civilians to survive is under attack,” Griffiths said.
Move to rural areas if possible, Kyiv mayor says
Much has been made of the need for diesel generators whose buzzing motors create stopgap electricity for cellphone towers, restaurants and especially hospitals, which are the Ukrainian government’s highest priority.
Sporadic electricity has widespread impacts. It deprives people of warmth from electric space heaters, steady light in the evenings and power for the millions of electronic devices and computers in a highly digitized country — and thus for livelihoods.
Strikes that disable deliveries of gas cut off the flames for furnaces and stoves. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko advised the capital’s residents to consider moving temporarily to rural areas, where basics like wood to burn for heat are more plentiful.
In the most desperate, hard-hit cities, some residents resort to scooping up dirty water from puddles in the street while water systems are temporarily disabled.
Saviano Abreu, a spokesperson for the UN humanitarian affairs office’s operation in Ukraine, said it pulled together hundreds of generators starting back in June, aware of the country’s harsh winters.
“With this situation and people living in damaged houses, we did know back then that we would have problems with heating, water and electricity, but not at this scale,” Abreu said, noting that supply chain issues posed obstacles to securing more equipment.
Also on Wednesday, Time Magazine named Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy its person of the year. It awarded him the accolade “for proving that courage can be as contagious as fear.” He was named alongside “the spirit of Ukraine.”
Editor in chief Edward Felsenthal said the choice was “the most clear-cut in memory.”