Controversial Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko announced on Friday that his country has no intention of participating in a military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
As the ongoing crisis between the two nations has deepened—with as many as 130,000 Russian troops now deployed on the Ukrainian border—Belarus was unexpectedly drawn in last week after indicating that it would host joint Russo-Belarusian military exercises in the country’s south. After the announcement was made, some policymakers and observers in the West suggested that the exercises could be a cover for a Russian invasion of Ukraine from the north.
Lukashenko announced that Belarus would remain neutral in a speech to the country’s lawmakers, claiming that the military drill was innocuous and would simply be an exercise to determine potential weaknesses in the defense of its southern border. He added that Belarus would not participate in any conflict unless it or Russia was directly attacked.
The day before Lukashenko’s remarks, the country’s Ministry of Defense clarified that Russian troops would only be present in Belarus for the military exercises and would leave the country once they were completed.
The statement put out by the Ministry of Defense insisted that the “military units and sub-units of the Russian Federation’s Armed Forces [would] leave the territory of the Republic of Belarus” after the conclusion of the drills, according to Reuters.
The drills are scheduled to take place from February 10 until February 20. However, some Russian troops and equipment are already present inside Belarus.
The drills are intended to simulate an invasion of Belarus. Russian and Belarusian troops will train in how to “thwart and repel a foreign aggression,” according to Russian deputy defense minister Alexander Fomin.
Russia and Belarus enjoy deep political and economic ties. Belarus, a former constituent republic of the Soviet Union, is arguably Russia’s closest foreign ally. The two countries are also part of the “Union State,” a political alliance committed to combining the two countries at a future date.
Despite close Russo-Belarusian ties, reports have circulated of considerable bad blood between Lukashenko and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Whether these differences have affected state policy is unclear, but many observers contrasted Putin’s subdued response to the massive protest wave in Belarus with his strong opposition to previous protest movements in states bordering Russia.
In the wake of the protest movement, which was ultimately put down in mid-2021, Belarus aligned itself more closely with Russia. Many believe that this was largely motivated by a desire to limit the impact of European sanctions on Belarus.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.