Leader of Belarus, ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’, Overshadows Connections with Russia

In the weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, the country held joint exercises with neighboring and ally Belarus, gathering tens of thousands of troops along the Ukrainian border even as the leaders of the two countries denied that the Kremlin was planning a war.

When President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia met President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus in St.Petersburg on Saturday, the Belarusian Armed Forces once again held “motivation” exercises, as Mr. Lukashenko – dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” – sought to ignite his relationship with Putin, his benefactor.

The ongoing military exercises in the area bordering the Ukrainian capital Kyiv risk exacerbating tensions in an already volatile region that has prompted Ukraine to place its border guards in high alarm condition.

“Units are being brought to a higher state of combat readiness, practical measures are being taken to receive conscripts, weapons and military equipment are being moved out of storage,” said the statement. A spokesman for the Ukrainian Operations Command said in a statement this month.

Ukrainian officials and Western observers say it is highly unlikely that Belarus, a former Soviet republic 9.4 million people, will go directly to war at this time, in the face of the risk of inciting social unrest at home and undermining Mr. Lukashenko’s ability to hold power. According to Pavel P. Latushko, a former senior Belarusian official who has fled the country, the morale of the Belarusian military is also being shaken.

However, analysts believe that Lukashenko, an autocrat to the Kremlin, is trying hard to show his worth to Mr. Putin. He has proven to be a reliable friend since Mr. Putin beefed up his security forces to help him quell mass protests following an unimaginably resounding victory in the election. controversial president in 2020.

Mr. Lukashenko, the former director of a Soviet collective pig farm, has held Belarus for nearly three decades by skillfully maneuvering between East and West, playing one against the other. But after the uprising against him last year, he became increasingly dependent on the Kremlin and docile to Mr. Putin.

Some analysts say it is only a matter of time before pressure from Putin forces Lukashenko to act more directly in the war, leaving him in a dilemma. Getting involved in the conflict could undermine his support at home, but if he fails to deliver on Mr. Putin’s bid, the Russian leader could retaliate by taking steps to force him to have to leave office.

In the early stages of the war, Belarus allowed Putin to use its territory for the Russian military to wage a terrifying campaign to try to capture Kyiv. The plan failed spectacularly, but with Russia now mired in a fierce war of attrition in eastern Ukraine, Moscow would benefit from any help Mr. Lukashenko can provide. .

Mr. Lukashenko has proven himself to be a good friend. He used Belarus’ 600-mile border with Ukraine to help place wooden “fake tanks” in the woods, creating the illusion of impending danger; to replenish Russia’s arsenal; and allows Moscow to launch missile strikes from within Belarus.

According to Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, as part of this weekend’s drills, the Belarusian military has deployed 3,500 to 4,000 troops near the border. The entire Belarusian army, he said, has about 60,000 troops, although Lukashenko wants to add 20,000 more.

Belarusian Ministry of Defense speak Its special operations forces will take part in the exercise, which will take place in the southeastern Gomel region of the country, whose border is just 65 miles from Kyiv.

While Lukashenko has made it clear that his loyalty remains unwavering to Mr. Putin, he remains a benevolent leader, known for his sometimes unpredictable behavior. Among other things, he has touted ice hockey, vodka, saunas and tractor driving as remedies for Covid; send a fighter intercept a European plane adopt a prominent dissident; and made his generals salute his teenage son.

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