Ukraine Fears ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ Will Join the Russian Invasion

Belarus’ contribution to the war effort could be as many as 15,000 troops, giving Russia another opportunity to capture Kyiv ■ A senior security source says Belarusian commanders are deeply opposed to joining the invasion

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
A man holding a rifle in Kyiv on Sunday.
A man holding a rifle in Kyiv on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

KYIV – The Ukrainian army is preparing for an imminent invasion by Belarus into its territory. If Belarus does join the Russian war against Ukraine, its forces are likely to take part in the effort to encircle and capture the Ukrainian capital, which is just 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) from the Belarusian border.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Belarus has been used by the Russians since the invasion began nearly four weeks ago as a base and springboard for its troops moving southward toward Kyiv. Russian fighter jets have been taking off from Belarusian airfields to bomb targets in Ukraine, and Belarus is serving as a launching ground for rocket attacks. Russia has also set up its headquarters, logistical hubs, field hospitals and morgues for deceased soldiers in Belarusian territory.

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The Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that it believes a Belarusian invasion to be highly probable. Organizations currently working in Ukraine to rescue civilians from war zones told Haaretz that they had been notified by the government to prioritize those currently living in towns like Chernihiv, northern Ukraine, located in the path of a potential invasion by Belarusian forces.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarus opposition leader in exile, also said Tuesday that the Belarusian army was preparing to invade. A sign of an imminent invasion was the closure of Belarus’ embassy in Kyiv on Saturday.

The Belarusian army was taking part in military maneuvers with Russian forces in the weeks leading up to the invasion, and according to various assessments the nation still has five task forces stationed at the Ukrainian border and poised to attack. Belarus’ contribution to the war effort could be around 15,000 troops – a small army, though it would provide significant force to Russian units on the ground, and offer them another opportunity to successfully encircle and capture Kyiv.

The Russian units that invaded Ukraine on February 24 have taken severe losses in personnel and military equipment, and have barely changed positions in over a week. Some of the units have merged with others to allow them to continue operating in the field despite losses. Russia has faced difficulties in reinforcing its forces due to legal obstacles meant to prevent the government from sending conscripts out of the nation's borders, as well as the deep reluctance of former soldiers to reenlist despite large financial inducements being offered by the government.

The deployment of mercenaries of the Russian Wagner Group is not expected to improve the situation for Russia, and the plan to bring other mercenaries from the Middle East and North Africa is likely to take too long. Currently, the only available reinforcement is the Belarusian units, who are in close proximity to Kyiv and already accustomed to working with their Russian comrades.

Lukashenko, who is often referred to as “the last dictator in Europe,” has been ruling Belarus for 28 years. In August 2020, massive protests broke out in the capital Minsk and other cities following claims of fraud in the presidential election, where official results resulted in a landslide victory for Lukashenko (he won 80 percent of the vote). Putin's political and financial support for Minsk in the face of Western sanctions, and his reported reinforcements of special forces to suppress the protests throughout the country, have left Lukashenko reliant on the Russian leader for his very survival.

But despite that reliance, there are those in the Ukrainian government who are skeptical of Lukashenko's ability to order his troops to invade neighboring Ukraine. A senior security source said that the commanders of the Belarusian army are deeply opposed to joining a war where they fear their men will face similar or even worse casualty rates than those of the Russian army.

Ruins in Kiev, Ukraine, March 21, 2022.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
RUssian shelling in Kiev, Ukraine, March 20, 2022.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

There is opposition within the country’s civil society as well. According to one survey, 97 percent of the Belarusian public believe it will be a disaster for their country if they invade Ukraine. There are numerous reports of employees of the Belarusian railway company refusing to transport military supplies to the front.

In Kyiv, meanwhile, the 35-hour curfew on the city continued Tuesday as Russian and Ukrainian artillery batteries west and north of the city center exchanged fire. One person was killed in the Obolon area of northern Kyiv. In the outer suburbs of Gostomel, Irpin and Bucha, battles continued on the ground as the Ukrainians tried to cut off Russian advance units. In the town of Borispil, north of Kyiv, where the main international airport is, an evacuation of civilians was announced.

Another major Ukrainian counterattack was taking place on the Black Sea coast as forces based in Mykolaiv tried to push the Russians further eastward, to the captured city of Kherson.

Ruins in Kiev after Russian shelling, March 20, 2022.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

According to unconfirmed reports from Russia, the commander of the Sixth Army, Gen. Vladislav Yershov, was fired from his post and placed under house arrest following his troops’ failures on the battlefield. This was just one of a number of similar firings of senior officers in the Russian military and intelligence apparatus since the invasion began.

Another Russian general in the headlines is Mikhail Mizenetsev, who, according to reports in the Ukrainian media, is in command of the Russian forces currently encircling and bombarding the town of Mariupol, where thousands of civilians are reported to have been killed. Mizenetsev was also a commander of the Russian forces that were deployed to Syria in 2015 and helped the Assad regime bombard Aleppo before retaking it.

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