Belarus said on Tuesday that its army was assessing its combat readiness, a move amid pressure on the country to continue supporting Russian forces in Ukraine.
Military experts say Belarus is highly unlikely to send troops to Ukraine, not least because it would be deeply unpopular domestically, but they say President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko could give Belarus the impression of a willingness to fight to get Ukraine to do so to force troops to divert from other fronts.
Mr Lukashenko is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir V Putin, and Belarus relies on Moscow for finance, fuel and security support. Moscow used eastern Belarus as a base when it launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in February. The United States and European governments have imposed sanctions on both countries.
A statement from the Belarusian Defense Ministry said that on Mr Lukashenko’s orders, “a sudden combat readiness check has begun”.
As part of its preparations, the Belarusian troops will have to move to predetermined locations and test their equipment, organize security and defense and build bridges across the Neman and Berezina rivers, the Defense Ministry said in the Telegram messaging app.
The Neman River flows through Lithuania and eventually empties into the Baltic Sea, while the Berezina flows into the Dnipro River about 40 miles north of the Ukrainian border. The drills would not directly approach the Belarus-Ukraine border, which is about 670 miles long.
In October, Mr Lukashenko said Russian troops were returning to his country in large numbers, and in recent weeks drones have been launched from Belarus against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and other targets. In addition, shipments of military equipment were transported by Russian forces from Belarus to their troops in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.
Ukrainian forces are already fighting in the south and east. Faced with the potential threat from the north, Andriy Demchenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s State Border Guard, said Tuesday that the country was strengthening its defenses along the border with Belarus. He said the situation is under control.
“We can clearly see how Russia is putting pressure on Belarus to join the all-out war,” he told a Ukrainian telethon.
Ukraine has started building a wall and moat system along the border in northwest Volyn province in recent weeks, although analysts say it will prevent migrants from crossing rather than for military reasons.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group, said in a report this week that Belarus is “extremely unlikely to invade Ukraine anytime soon.”
Instead, it said Mr Lukashenko and other officials in Belarus had backed Moscow’s efforts to propose that Belarus join the war directly to pin down Ukrainian troops on its northern border.
At the same time, the institute said that Moscow intends to further tie Belarus into its campaign in Ukraine “as part of a long-term effort to further consolidate control over Belarus.”