Russia’s close ally Belarus could formally join the war in Ukraine in the coming days if Moscow concludes that Ukraine has “used force” against either Russia or Belarus, a senior Russian foreign ministry official warned Friday.
“Any use of force by the Kyiv regime or a Ukrainian military invasion of either Belarus or Russia would be enough to trigger a collective response,” Aleksey Polishchuk, a director of the Russian Foreign Ministry, told TASS, referring to the so-called Union State that Belarus and Russia formed together years ago, in which the countries have been enmeshing their banking, military, and economic sectors.
“The republic has the sovereign right to defend its territory through all means available 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 in the new year against Ukraine that could be launched northwest of Ukraine from Belarus. Russia has repeatedly used Belarus as a launching ground to conduct attacks against Ukraine since the war broke out last February, including Russia’s failed attempt to storm and capture Kyiv.
Last week Ukraine’s chief military intelligence official warned Russia to brace for attacks “deeper and deeper” into Russian territory, following multiple suspected Ukrainian attacks last month inside Russia proper.
The diplomat did not clarify what Russia or Belarus would consider a “use of force,” which leaves wiggle room for the Kremlin to justify a whole host of activities against Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities have been eyeing the potential threat from Belarus in recent days as well. Yurii Ihnat, a spokesperson for the Air Force Command of Ukraine's Armed Forces, warned that missile attacks could come from Belarus in the coming days, according to The Guardian.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who warned that Russia might launch a new offensive in 2023, said Ukraine must “be ready” on the border with Belarus.
Zelensky assembled senior aides this week in Lviv to discuss “the condition and strengthening of fortifications on the border, as well as material support of border guards and servicemen in the regions bordering Belarus,” according to Polish radio.
Russia has been preparing Belarus’ military for months now. Just this week, the Commander-in-Chief of Russia’s Ground Forces, Army General Oleg Salyukov, paid a visit to Belarus to inspect the readiness of the Belarus-Russia regional military force, according to Belta. Air defense units of the Belarus-Russia regional military force have been reinforced, deployed, and have assumed combat duty this week as well, Belta reported. Belarus also initiated a snap inspection of combat readiness this week.
It’s not clear how soon Russia could launch a new offensive in Ukraine. Russia’s resources have been strained in recent days due to heavy fighting in Soledar in Ukraine. The status of the city was not immediately clear Friday after intense fighting—Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed it had captured Soledar, while a spokesperson for Ukraine’s troops in the east of the country denied that Russia won the battle. Russian forces have tried and failed for months to take the nearby city of Bakhmut as well.
And although Russia’s logistics, command and control, and morale have been floundering in the last ten months of war, there are some indications that Moscow may be looking for a rejuvenated war plan.
Earlier this week, the Kremlin promoted Gen. Valery Gerasimov to command Russia’s troops in Ukraine, replacing Gen. Sergei Surovikin, who had been leading the forces for three months. A return to Gerasimov, who previously led Russia’s forces in the war in its failed blitz to take over all of Ukraine in a matter of days, could indicate Moscow is looking to ramp up its assault on Ukraine in the new year.
The U.S. Department of Defense has assessed that Gerasimov’s promotion “likely” reflects “systemic challenges that the Russian military has faced… logistics problems, command and control… morale and the large failure to achieve the strategic objectives that they’ve set for themselves,” Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Thursday.
Turning to Gerasimov could be a sign of desperation as well. British intelligence assesses that his promotion could underline “the increasing seriousness of the situation Russia is facing.”