Monday

23rd May 2022

Belarus seen preparing attack amid fears of nuclear escalation

  • Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko (l) with Russian president Vladimir Putin (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
Listen to article

Belarus was threatening to send paratroopers to Ukraine on Sunday, in a sign of how the Russian invasion may be dragging other countries into the war just four days after it began.

There was a tougher European Union response too, as EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced plans to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons to Ukraine — the first time such a step had been taken.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

"This is a watershed moment," said von der Leyen.

"Another taboo has fallen," said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who noted with some trepidation that Russia had put forces responsible for nuclear combat on alert.

Russian banks would also be unplugged from the SWIFT international-payments grid, Russian planes would be locked out of Europe, and media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik would be banned in the EU, they said.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko had promised Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky by phone Sunday that he would hold back on sending in his forces until the outcome of talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials that are expected near the River Pripyat, on the Belarusian border.

"We can only hope Lukashenko will stick to his word" and exercise restraint, Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a press briefing from Kyiv on Facebook.

Hours earlier EU and US diplomats were warned that "[Belarusian] special operations forces are boarding planes" as part of a note sent by Alina Frolova, Ukraine's deputy defence minister, and seen by EUobserver. "An airborne landing is being prepared" for "Landing sites: Kyiv and Zhotimyr [in north-west Ukraine]," the note said.

EU diplomats in Minsk were trying to confirm if the Belarusian soldiers were really preparing to fly out, an EU source, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

But Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko appeared to be laying the groundwork for intervention in Ukraine in a speech he gave in Minsk on Sunday.

"Is he [Zelensky] pushing me to embark on a special operation?" asked Lukashenko, who laced his speech with a litany of bogus accusations: that Ukrainians were beating up Belarusian people in Ukraine; and that Zelensky had trained "bandits from the self-exiled opposition" to attack Belarus.

The direct involvement by a third state in the war, if it went ahead, would mark the largest escalation since Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday.

Putin, speaking in a TV statement Sunday, dialled up the tension further by threatening a nuclear response to what he described as Nato's "aggressive statements against our country."

"I order to move Russia's deterrence forces to a special regime of duty," said Putin, putting his nuclear forces in a state of combat readiness.

Reacting to Putin's words, Kuleba suggested that a tactical nuclear strike on Ukraine would be a global "catastrophe." Kuleba also said Putin's threat was designed to put pressure on Ukraine to surrender in the Pripyat talks.

"There's nothing bad in talking as such," Kuleba said. But he added that Ukraine "will not capitulate" and "will not give up a single inch" of its territory.

Nato has repeatedly vowed to stay out of the Ukraine war, but it's nonetheless sending extra troops to eastern allies to deter Russian aggression.

Nato and EU countries are also shipping arms to Ukraine via Poland, as heavy fighting continues in Kyiv and other cities.

Germany on Sunday announced it was sending anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, breaking a historical taboo on military intervention in a region associated with some of the Nazi era's worst crimes.

"We specifically need anti-tank, anti-air, anti-missile weapons. We need more air-to-air and ground-to-air missiles to counter the invaders," Ukraine's Kuleba said.

International legion

Alongside state-level intervention, international volunteer brigades to help the country also appeared to be forming, and Ukraine has created what Kuleba called an "international legion" for Europeans or other foreign fighters who wanted to take part in its "territorial defence."

Kyiv had already received "many hundreds" of volunteer requests, Kuleba said. "Every embassy and every consulate of Ukraine will help. Their access to Ukraine will be facilitated," he said.

Sunday's new EU measures will mark the third wave of sanctions on Russia in almost as many days. But there is still debate on how many Russian banks to strike out of SWIFT — and about how to keep Russian oil and gas imports flowing amid spiralling energy prices that hurt ordinary consumers in Europe.

"Some [EU] countries are trying to create loopholes so they can take some measures with their left hand, but keep on trading with Putin with their other hand," Kuleba said.

"Stop earning money soaked in our blood," the foreign minister said. Kuleba called for a "full oil and gas embargo" on Russia. "That oil and gas now contains Ukrainian blood," he said.

Lukashenko spoke on Sunday after holding a constitutional referendum that entrenched his grip on power and deepened Russia ties. His indirect support for Putin's war was already leading to extra EU sanctions on Belarus, von der Leyen said Sunday.

Were Belarusian paratroopers to join the fighting, then massive Russia-type EU sanctions on Belarus would also be discussed, diplomatic sources said.

Opinion

Putin and the threat of a tactical nuclear attack

Nato could be in a position to experience nuclear deterrence in an entirely unexpected form, requiring skilled diplomacy and even a willingness for some compromise, however bitter, to avoid disaster.

Russian beachhead Belarus hit with sanctions

Belarus will not be able to import dual-use goods and certain advanced technology from the EU that might contribute to its military, technological, defence and security systems.

Opinion

Brexit hostility to Good Friday Agreement is damaging UK in US

Democratic Unionist MPs could affirm unequivocally they support the Good Friday Agreement, with no return of a border with physical controls on movement of people, goods or agricultural produce within the island of Ireland — but they won't.

Podcast

Ultraconservatives in Putin's shadow

Vladimir Putin's Ukraine war has threatened to be a public relations disaster for hard-right gatherings like the Conservative Political Action Conference — now meeting in Budapest and featuring Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who remains highly-cordial with the Kremlin.

News in Brief

  1. Lagarde: ECB likely to end negative rates by September
  2. Germany would back Russia oil embargo without Hungary
  3. UK to send 'hundreds' of migrants to Rwanda each year
  4. Norwegian knife attacks were domestic dispute
  5. Sweden hits back at Turkey's 'disinformation' in Nato bid
  6. Germany's Schröder gives up one of two Russia jobs
  7. G7 countries pledge €18bn in financial aid for Ukraine
  8. Italian unions strike in protest over military aid for Ukraine

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic delegation visits Nordic Bridges in Canada
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersClear to proceed - green shipping corridors in the Nordic Region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers agree on international climate commitments
  4. UNESDA - SOFT DRINKS EUROPEEfficient waste collection schemes, closed-loop recycling and access to recycled content are crucial to transition to a circular economy in Europe
  5. UiPathNo digital future for the EU without Intelligent Automation? Online briefing Link

Latest News

  1. EU Commission extends borrowing curbs in 2023
  2. Brexit hostility to Good Friday Agreement is damaging UK in US
  3. Are Orban's Covid powers now the 'new normal' in Hungary?
  4. Missing guns amid rising far-right hate in EU
  5. MEPs boycott trip after Israeli snub
  6. What Europe still needs to do to save its bees
  7. Remembering Falcone: How Italy almost became a narco-state
  8. Economic worries and Hungary on the spot Next WEEK

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us