Belarus toughens its rhetoric, adding to concerns that Moscow wants to draw Minsk more directly into the Ukraine war

By Georgi Kantchev

Dec. 30, 2022

The Wall Street Journal

Russia declared its “extreme concern” about a Ukrainian air-defense missile that landed in Belarus, while authorities in Minsk, which initially played down the incident, adopted a much tougher tone.  The escalating rhetoric renewed concerns that Moscow was seeking to draw Minsk more directly into the war with Ukraine, after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Belarus, and joint military exercises.

On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said military leaders in Moscow and Minsk were in constant contact and coordinating closely. “This is an event that causes extreme concern—not only for us, but also for our Belarusian partners,” Mr. Peskov told reporters.

On Thursday, Belarusian authorities at first reacted mildly after saying that their forces had downed a rocket from a Ukrainian S-300 air-defense system. The military commissar of the Brest region, where the rocket fell, said residents had no reason to worry and compared it with the errant missile from Ukraine that landed in Poland in November. Later, though, the Ukrainian ambassador was called to the Foreign Ministry in Minsk to receive a formal protest regarding what was described as “a very serious incident.” On Friday, Belarus’s Defense Ministry said the Ukrainian missile could have been a “deliberate provocation” by Kyiv. State newswire Belta quoted the ministry as saying the missile’s launch could also have been an error because of poor training or equipment malfunction.

Alexander Volfovich, the state secretary of the Belarusian Security Council, said that while Minsk was still investigating, it was unlikely that the missile flew into Belarusian territory by accident. Russian state media quoted Mr. Volfovich as saying that Ukraine “seeks to provoke a regional conflict by any means,” and that “it is not enough for Ukraine to have a war on its own territory.”

Ukraine said it would investigate. Kyiv also said that it reserved “the unconditional right to the defense and protection of its own sky,” and that it couldn’t rule out a “deliberate provocation” in which Russia launched missiles on a path that would have drawn Ukrainian fire toward Belarus. “The Ukrainian side is aware of the Kremlin’s desperate and persistent efforts to drag Belarus into its aggressive war against Ukraine,” the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said Thursday. Also Thursday, Russia’s Defense Ministry released a video of what it described as Russian servicemen undergoing intensive combat training in Belarus.

Belarus is Moscow’s closest ally, and borders both Russia and Ukraine. Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has already allowed Moscow to use his country as a staging ground in its invasion of Ukraine, which began in February.

Tens of thousands of Russian troops were stationed there and Russian war planes took off from Belarusian bases. However, Mr. Lukashenko has signaled that he isn’t planning to deploy Belarusian troops to help Mr. Putin’s war effort.

Some Ukrainian officials and military analysts see Russia maneuvering in Belarus as a ploy to divert Ukraine’s forces from battlefields in the country’s south and east and weaken its defenses there.

Western analysts also say that a full-throttle assault from Belarus is unlikely soon as Russian forces there are insufficient for a fresh attack and it would involve planning and massing of more forces, which would be easy to observe in advance.

If Belarus were pulled directly into the conflict, it wouldn’t fundamentally change the course of the war, according to military analysts. Belarus’s army is poorly equipped and isn’t combat-ready, having never fought a battle in its over 30 years of independence from the old Soviet Union.