Minsk and Moscow have agreed to deploy a joint regional group of military forces in response to “aggravations” on Belarus’ border with Ukraine.
Speaking at a meeting with security officials on Monday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said the move was necessary to bolster the country’s security.
“Given the worsening of the situation on the western borders of the Union State, we agreed to deploy a regional group of forces of the Russian Federation and the Republic of Belarus,” President Lukashenko said referring to the supranational Union State, which unites Russia and Belarus.
“All of this (is being done) according to our documents. If the threat level reaches the current level, the way it is now, we will start involving the Union State grouping.”
A longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lukashenko gave no details of the size or precise purpose of the new joint force but made it clear that the group “won’t be just a thousand troops.”
Both Russia and Belarus are co-founding members of the Union State, which supposes the gradual establishment of a unified political, economic, military, customs, currency, legal, humanitarian and cultural space.
The two countries started pulling forces together three days ago, shortly after Saturday’s attack on the Moscow-built bridge linking Russia with the Crimean peninsula.
In his remarks, the 68-year-old Belarusian leader accused Ukraine of planning attacks on his country from the south. He said the warning had come through "unofficial channels," who said Ukraine was planning a “Crimean Bridge 2.”
“My answer was simple: ‘Tell the president of Ukraine and these other lunatics that the Crimean bridge will seem like a walk in the park if they touch even one meter of our territory with their dirty hands,” warned the Belarusian president.
The Crimean Bridge, constructed by Russia after its seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, is seen as a vital supply route for Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. The bridge, which is also called Kerch bridge, was hit last week by what Russian authorities are calling a truck explosion. Road and rail traffic on the bridge was temporarily halted, damaging the supply for the Kremlin’s forces, which are facing continued losses on the battlefield and mounting criticism at home.
Meanwhile, the Belarusian president also dismissed media reports about Belarusian involvement in the Russian invasion of Ukraine as “fake news.”
“The situation around Belarus, as we have already said, remains tense. One of the reasons is that the West keeps arguing that the Belarusian army will directly engage (in Russia’s) special military operation in Ukraine. Having been influenced by such bogus stories, the military and political leader of the North Atlantic Alliance and a number of European countries are now openly considering options to carry out aggression against our country, up to conducting a nuclear strike,” Lukashenko said.
Lukashenko’s statement prompted an immediate reaction from the European Union. On Monday, the European Commission urged Minsk to stop spreading “false accusations” against Ukraine and to call off a joint grouping of troops with Russia, threatening further sanctions.
Belarus — a former Soviet republic — is vital to Russia both economically and strategically. Located between Russia and NATO allies in northeastern Europe, Belarus serves as a buffer against the western military block.
Ahead of Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, tens of thousands of Russian troops were reportedly moved to Belarus to conduct military exercises. Russia used the country as a staging post for the invasion of northern Ukraine.
If amassed along Belarus’ western borders, the joint unit of Belarusian forces and Russian army will be deployed near EU members and Ukraine allies — Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Western experts believe that Russia’s military activities at the borders of the Baltic States and Ukraine, as well as its increasing military influence in Belarus, pose security challenges impacting the region.
Russia, in turn, has been criticizing the deployment of NATO troops to Eastern Europe, up to Russia’s borders, which it says threatens its stability and may force Moscow to take extra measures to ensure its security.