A senior Belarusian official raised the prospect of “conflict” with Ukraine one day after President Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to avert a crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
“It deployed a group of armed forces, heavy weapons, using helicopters and combat aircraft," Belarusian Security Council Alexander Volfovich said Wednesday, in reference to Ukraine. "Probably, they are looking up to Poland, which is fighting migrants by using water cannons and tear gas; it is a good thing that they did not use firearms. This can result in a local conflict.”
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s regime has shown a penchant for bellicose rhetoric in recent months, as his regime orchestrated a migrant crisis on the borders of Belarus and his European neighbors that was linked by many observers to Russian hostility toward NATO and the European Union. The latest statement follows weeks of Russian and Belarusian coordination and coincides with Putin’s team touting a union agreement with Belarus as one of Moscow’s “more advanced allied structures” in the region of the former Soviet Union.
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“None of this is an attempt at the reincarnation of the USSR and nor can it be," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday, on the 30th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.
That denial notwithstanding, Lukashenko’s status as a Kremlin client raises the possibility that Volfovich’s statement is “a warning” not only from Minsk but Moscow.
“I would say that it is meant to underscore to Ukraine that Russia can come at them from the north — toward Kyiv — as well as from the east,” said former Ambassador Kurt Volker, who represented the United States at NATO and as special envoy for Ukraine prior to former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment scandal.
Lukashenko tried to resist Kremlin pressure to accept the terms of life under Putin’s thumb, but he ended that struggle in the face of major Belarusian protests against the results of a 2019 presidential election widely considered fraudulent.
“Lukashenko has sold himself to Putin. He’s basically said he wants to be in power, and he’s therefore allowed Putin to come in and take over the security services, the military intelligence, and information, in exchange for him just continuing to crack down and stay in power,” Volker said. “That’s the deal. He has also sided with Russia over Ukraine, because he has no choice.”
Western misgivings about a potential Russian attack on Ukraine took shape as Russian forces conducted operations in the name of ensuring Belarusian security from NATO members, and Ukrainian officials have suggested to the U.S. that Belarus might loom large in a crisis.
“It was also us who shared some new elements with our American partners, in particular with relation to the situation taking place in Belarus,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said last month in a joint press conference with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “This is the potential front line that should not be underestimated.”
Biden’s team and senior lawmakers believe that Putin “clearly wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union,” but they hope that the threat of economic sanctions will deter a conflict.
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“I want to be crystal clear to those listening to this hearing in Moscow, Kyiv, and other capitals around the world: A Russian invasion will trigger devastating economic sanctions, the likes of which we have never seen before,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said Wednesday. “The Russian banking sector would be wiped out ... Let me be clear — these are not run-of-the-mill sanctions. What is being discussed is at the maximum end of that spectrum, or as I have called it, the mother of all sanctions.”