Multiple sources told the Kyiv Independent the decision has been made and the first Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft is likely to take off carrying Belarusian paratroopers to be deployed against Ukraine soon.
Rumours regarding the official Belarusian involvement in the war started circulating on Feb 27, the fourth day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, following a report presented to diplomatic circles by unnamed Belarusian opposition journalists.
The message suggested that Belarusian troops might be deployed to the Kyiv or the Zhytomyr areas to assist the Russian invading force.
The report could not be verified by the Kyiv independent, but its report did mention other activity that could signal Belarusian involvement such as the launch of a media campaign by the Belarusian opposition to warn against it.
A US administration official also told The Washington Post that Belarus is preparing to send soldiers into Ukraine to support the Russian invasion.
“It’s very clear Minsk is now an extension of the Kremlin,” the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive security development, told the Post on Sunday.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and he has allowed Russian troops to assemble in Belarus and conduct large-scale military drills there, the official said.
If Belarus joins the Russian invasion, it would significantly complicate proposed talks between Russia and Ukraine, which the two sides had planned to hold at the Ukrainian border with Belarus.
According to the Kyiv Independent, former high-ranking Belarusian airborne commander Valeriy Sakhashik made a recent video address urging all Belarusian paratroopers not to obey unlawful orders that would throw them into a war against a friendly nation.
Several thousand Belarusian citizens rallied against the war across the country on Feb 27.
Ukraine’s presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said on Feb 27 numerous indications suggested that the Belarusian military was being put on alert.
According to Belarusian media, the country’s armed forces include nearly 45,000 military personnel and 20,000 civilian employees. In Arestovych’s opinion, just 17,000 Belarusian military personnel are of considerable combat efficacy, so their involvement would likely not be that significant for Russia, which amassed at least 150,000 troops for the invasion of Ukraine.
On Feb 27, Lukashenko said that Belarusians started facing violence in Ukraine and that Kyiv is threatening Belarus with terror activities. It echoed the pretext that Putin gave for launching the invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24.
Amid concerns, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky had a phone call with Lukashenko on Feb 27, following which the Ukrainian leader said Lukashenko reassured him of his non-involvement in Russia’s war.
However, according to former Ukrainian Defence Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk, in reality, the Belarusian dictator, whose existence highly depends on Putin, has no choice other than to join.
From the expert’s perspective, Belarus’s involvement would be an escalating factor, though it would not have a dramatic escalation effect in the war. In particular, Lukashenko might invade Ukraine’s northwestern regions on which Russia is not currently focused.
“But the Belarusian military has no combat experience, at all,” Zagorodnyuk said. “It really matters. And they are not motivated, they do not really understand what they will be doing in Ukraine.”
The media campaign to warn off Belarusian soldiers from joining the Ukrainian invasion has just started, and it needs to be continued, Zagorodnyuk said.
“If god forbid, Lukashenko gives an order to go in, I hope many would refuse to shoot at Ukrainians,” he said. “Otherwise, this will be a historic tragedy between the two peoples.”