Russian President Vladimir Putin made a rare trip to Belarus on Monday to meet with the country's president, close regional ally Aleksandr Lukashenko, who backed Moscow's invasion of Ukraine and is under increasing pressure to provide more support to the war effort.
In a statement after their talks in Minsk, the pair said they had agreed to continue joint military exercises and cooperate closely in the military sphere, exchanging and developing equipment and weapons, to protect "the safety of our countries," without putting a fine point on what that would look like.
Putin added that "such measures are necessary" because of the tense situation "on the outer borders of the Union state [of Russia and Belarus]." But neither leader mentioned Ukraine in their public statements.
Both emphasized the challenges of Western economic sanctions pressure, underlining the need to support each other. Putin said he expected trade between the two countries to reach a record this year, at the equivalent of $40 billion.
Lukashenko said that, despite "some rough edges," Belarus and Russia would find answers to all threats; and expressed the hope that the West will "listen to the voice of reason" so a dialogue on security could resume.
Some background: Lukashenko allowed Putin to use Belarus, which shares a 674-mile border with Ukraine, as a staging ground for his invasion. In early February, Russia sent some 30,000 troops ostensibly for joint military exercises with Belarus — the biggest deployment to the former Soviet state since the end of the Cold War. Weeks later, when Putin declared his “special military operation” on February 24, he sent missiles, paratroopers and a huge armored column of soldiers rolling south from Belarusian soil.
Unraveling the role that Belarus has played in the Ukraine war has taken on new urgency since Lukashenko announced in October that Russian soldiers would deploy to the country to form a new, “regional grouping” and carry out new joint exercises with Belarusian troops, raising fears that he might draw the country more directly into the conflict.
Putin has been laying the groundwork to transform Belarus into a vassal state for some time. After a rigged presidential election in 2020 cemented Lukashenko’s long reign, triggering widespread pro-democracy protests, he clung to power with the help of Putin. Russia backed the ruthless crackdown on demonstrations, and gave Belarus a $1.5 billion lifeline to evade the brunt of sanctions, but it came with strings attached.
Beholden to the Kremlin, Lukashenko has supported Russia’s military actions from the sidelines, so far avoiding sending his own troops into the fray. But he may be forced to shift his position, as Putin racks up losses.