From Belarus without much love: Russia’s exaggerated offensive aspirations

War in Ukraine - 022622
FILE – Zakhar Leshchyshyn, a Ukrainian serviceman, listens to artillery shots standing in a trench on a position at the line of separation between Ukraine-held territory and rebel-held territory near Zolote, Ukraine, Feb. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File) Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

From Belarus without much love: Russia’s exaggerated offensive aspirations

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Concerns over a new multi-front Russian offensive in Ukraine are legitimate but exaggerated.

While Ukrainian generals are warning of such an offensive, their statements are primarily motivated by a need to maintain Western materiel and political support for Kyiv. With Vladimir Putin visiting Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus on Monday, fears are also centering on the possibility of a new southward offensive from Belarus toward Kyiv. What should we make of this threat?

As the crow flies, Belarus is just 50 miles north of Kyiv. Yet that’s only one piece of the puzzle. After all, Russia’s battlefield challenges are even worse today than they were the first time they attempted such an incursion. Russian troops are poorly led and generally badly trained, terribly equipped, under-armed, and beset by profound morale problems. These are problems that you cannot solve by sending musicians to the front. And the coming winter will significantly exacerbate all of them.

THE GRIM STATE OF RUSSIA’S WAR EFFORT IS FINALLY LEAKING INTO RUSSIAN MEDIA AND SOCIAL MEDIA

This is why Russia almost certainly lacks the means of conducting a multi-front offensive to secure large new areas of Ukraine or Kyiv. But this isn’t to say that Ukraine can be overconfident. The Belarus front deserves attention.

As I noted one month before Putin began the war in February, Belarus was key to Russia because it offered a relatively short route to Kyiv. In that regard, Putin’s trip to Minsk on Monday deserves scrutiny. The Russian president almost certainly demanded Lukashenko join the war against Ukraine. Until now, Lukashenko has limited his support to munition and equipment, care for wounded Russian soldiers, and his allowing of Belorussian territory to be used for Russian air and missile operations.

Still, Lukashenko is deeply hesitant to participate in Putin’s war. The dictator has so far resisted significant pressure from Putin to join. Lukashenko recognizes the battlefield crisis facing Russia and wants to avoid further Western sanctions against his struggling country’s economy.

Even if he is an odd character, Lukashenko is not stupid. He knows that the war is unpopular in Belarus, and the Belorussian military is relatively small. If the Belorussian military enters the war and suffers major losses, Lukashenko risks losing his means of controlling his restive population. That opens the door to a successful new revolution. In turn, even as Putin ups the pressure, probably with personal threats, Lukashenko likely views joining the war as an equally existential risk.

Putin described the Monday meeting as “very productive” and Lukashenko made similar comments. But only on Friday did Lukashenko offer a strident rebuke of the suggestion that he would allow Belarus to become a formally subordinated vassal of Putin’s greater union state agenda. Lukashenko observed “despite all the difficulties, if the leadership of the Russian Federation wants to build relations with the sovereign and independent state of Belarus, if Russia perceives us as a sovereign and independent state…we are ready to build such relationships. We must always proceed from the fact that we are a sovereign and independent state.” This is not the language of a leader cowed by Putin.

Lukashenko’s strategy towards Russia appears to remain centered in a calibrated effort to maintain critical economic ties with Russia by doing just enough to keep Putin from pushing him out of power. Lukashenko also likely still bets that Putin’s deepening challenge in Ukraine and concern over a Western government taking power in Belarus mean that Russia won’t risk overthrowing him.

That leaves us with the battlefield dynamics. Belarus still offers Russia a geographic opportunity to rush towards Kyiv. But Russian forces would be in an even worse position than they were in February were they to attempt such an attack.

It is doubtful that even a joint Russian-Belorussian southern offensive towards Kyiv could break through Ukrainian lines and sustain offensive momentum with adequate logistics and command support. Moreover, Russia’s rapidly perishing stocks of ever-older artillery and missile munitions would mean that Ukraine might feasibly hold Russian forces outside Kyiv while launching simultaneous counteroffensives against attacking Russian forces in eastern and southeastern Ukraine. Considering their doctrinal sympathies, British Army advisers in Ukraine would likely suggest just that. Considering the repeated inability of Russian forces to conduct organized retreats, Putin could quickly face a critical problem. He might even risk losing control over Crimea, something that would directly threaten Putin’s stability in Moscow.

Put simply, the potential of a new Russian offensive deserves attention, but not exaggerated alarm.

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