Putin’s visit signals pressure is mounting on Belarus’s leader to expand support for Russia’s war.
WARSAW — Under mounting Kremlin pressure to provide more support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus is hosting a rare visit by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, on Monday.
Mr. Lukashenko, Mr. Putin’s closest ally, relies on Moscow for financial, fuel and security assistance to maintain his 28-year grip on power. The two men have met at least six times since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, using Belarus as a staging ground for its abortive assault on Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. But those meetings were all outside of Belarus, with most taking place in Russia.
After months holed up at the Kremlin and at his country retreat near Moscow, keeping a distance from Russia’s military and diplomatic setbacks, Mr. Putin has in recent weeks sought to project a more hands-on image. His trip on Monday to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, follows a visit last week to Kyrgyzstan and a visit on Friday to a Russian military command post at an undisclosed location.
Mr. Putin bounded down the steps of his aircraft in Minsk on Monday. Mr. Lukashenko was waiting there to greet him on the tarmac, and Mr. Putin gave him a hug. It was Mr. Putin’s first visit to Belarus since 2019, according to the Russian news agency Tass.
As Russia has floundered on the battlefield, Mr. Lukashenko has allowed Moscow to use his territory to launch missiles and bombing runs against Ukraine, but has so far resisted pressure from the Kremlin to send in his own troops. In remarks reported by the state news agency Belta, the Belarusian strongman insisted that his meeting with Mr. Putin on Monday would focus on economic matters, particularly the price of Russian natural gas, on which Belarus is heavily dependent.
But he conceded that “of course, we will not avoid” military issues and “we will talk about defense capability and the security of our state.”
The meeting follows repeated warnings from Ukraine in recent days that Russian forces could be preparing a new offensive from Belarus aimed either at making another effort to seize Kyiv, only around 55 miles from the Belarusian border, or at disrupting the flow of Western arms into Ukraine from Poland.
But many military experts believe that Russia’s military has been so badly battered by nearly 10 months of war that it is no condition to launch a new offensive from Belarus, with or without the participation of Belarusian troops.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, said in a report published on Friday that a new Russian thrust into Ukraine was unlikely as “there are still no indicators that Russian forces are forming a strike force in Belarus.”
Defense ministers from Russia and Belarus signed an unspecified agreement earlier this month to strengthen military ties, and last week, Belarus said it was checking the combat readiness of its troops. The last time it did that was just days before Russia invaded Ukraine from its territory.
But the flurry of military activity in Belarus, including the arrival of thousands of Russian troops ostensibly for training, could be part of an elaborate ruse aimed at forcing Ukraine to divert its troops to the north from active fronts in the east and south of the country. Konrad Muzyka, an independent defense analyst, said open-source intelligence suggests that Russia has between 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers engaged in training activities in Belarus, although that is a fraction of the number they had when they launched the full-scale invasion.
Still, Mr. Putin’s meeting with Mr. Lukashenko, according to the Institute for the Study of War, “will reinforce the Russian information operation designed to convince Ukrainians and Westerners that Russia may attack Ukraine from Belarus.”
Whatever Russia’s aims, alarm is growing in Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine held a meeting on Sunday with his defense and security chiefs where Belarus was “the main issue on the agenda,” his office said in a statement.Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Mr. Zelensky, told The New York Times on Sunday that Ukraine is bracing for the possibility that Russia will escalate the war by launching a winter offensive.
In an unusual public acknowledgment of the view that he is so beholden to Moscow that he can only submit to its demands, Mr. Lukashenko on Friday dismissed as untrue talk that “there is no power in Belarus anymore, that the Russians are already running everything” and insisted: “no one, except us, governs Belarus.”
Marc Santora contributed reporting.