Ukrainian government and military officials claim the possibility of Belarussian involvement in the ground war is increasing by the day. On the heels of this, Western intelligence sources I’ve spoken with claim Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko has been deferring deployment by 3-4 days every time Moscow has asked about it. The Belarussian military is made up largely of conscripts and there’s fear in Minsk that joining the war in Ukraine could lead to mass desertions or worse.
Russian warships in the Sea of Azov have started firing into Mariupol, a first in the city’s siege. The firing has been largely limited to naval gunfire support, but its not yet known if this is directed fire or indiscriminate rounds.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman refused to rule out the use of nuclear weapons if Russia perceives a threat to its very existence as a nation. “If there’s a threat to the very existence of our country, it can be used in accordance with this concept,” the spokesman said in response to a question of whether Russia’s use of nuclear weapons could be completely ruled out. Russian military doctrine, like that of its Soviet predecessor, considers the first-use of nuclear weapons if a conventional conflict is being lost. Originally, this doctrine was developed for a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict in Europe during the Cold War. However, now it would apply to a conflict such as the one in Ukraine right now.
NATO has invited Volodymyr Zelenskiy to address the summit of NATO leaders on Thursday. It would be done via video format. Zelenskiy’s press secretary, Serhiy Nykyforov has stated he will take an ‘active role’ in the summit, but did not explain precisely what this means.
The situation on the ground at Zaporizhzhia Power Plant in Ukraine seems to have improved considerably in the past ten hours. The fire caused during the Russian attack has been extinguished, there has been no radiation leakage and the reactor units have been shut down. The bad news is that the plant is now under Russian control. World leaders have condemned Russia for the attack and admittedly, it was not a prudent move. The International Atomic Energy Agency is attempting to set up a meeting with the aim of laying down a plan to prohibit attacks against nuclear power plants in the future.
NATO will not move to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, in spite of considerable pressure from Ukrainian politicians and others. Secretary Jens Stoltenberg called it a “painful decision,” but reiterated that NATO cannot risk escalating the conflict by engaging Russian aircraft flying over Ukraine. “We understand the desperation, but we also believe that if we did that, would end up with something that could end in a full-fledged war in Europe involving many more countries and causing much more human suffering,” he said. The United States has also ruled out a no-fly zone over Ukraine for similar reasons.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko repeated today that his nation’s armed forces are not taking part in the Ukrainian invasion and this will not change in the future. There’ve been conflicting reports about the status of Belarussian forces since the conflict erupted, but for now at least, Belarus will not be committing troops to the fighting.
Fighting in the town of Irpin (or Irbin) has intensified over the last twenty four hours. Ukrainian forces pushed back an assault by Russian paratroopers and supporting BMD light infantry vehicles yesterday. Today, Russian shelling has been heavy, falling in residential areas. These artillery and rocket attacks do not appear indiscriminate though. Instead it seems to be a Russian effort to soften up built up areas Ukrainian defenders can dig in and slow down the Russian advance when it begins…which will likely be soon.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was in Munich on Saturday trying to reinforce Western support for his nation as the prospects of a diplomatic resolution to the crisis grow even dimmer. Zelenskiy was critical of the Western response thus far. He appealed for economic sanctions against Russia to start before the shooting does. He also pointed out that daily predictions of a Russian invasion by US and European leaders only serves to damage Ukraine’s economy, rather than deter Russia. In conclusion, Zelenskiy said no deal should be reached between Russia and the West that does not include his country. US and European officials were uneasy with Zelenskiy’s decision to fly to Munich today. It was feared that his departure from Kiev would be viewed as a window of opportunity, enticing Russia to take action.
Allied Resolve, the military exercise taking place in Belarus is coming to an end. Before the exercise even started, Belarussian government assured a nervous world that Russian forces would be leaving their country as soon as Allied Resolve concluded. Today, Belarus announced Russian forces will not be departing the country after Allied Resolve concludes on 20 February. Government officials in Minsk have denied ever limiting the amount of time Russian troops would be allowed to remain on Belarussian soil.
To be fair, it was apparent from the moment Allied Resolve was announced that the exercise was being launched at least partly to provide cover for the movement of tens of thousands of Russian troops into Belarus. As the exercise continued on, more Russian units continued arriving in the country, tying up highways and railways across much of Belarus in the process. Neither Minsk or Moscow were fooling anyone and it is likely both Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko knew it.
Pro-Russian separatists launched a number of artillery strikes against Ukrainian military positions around the Kiev government-controlled town of Svitlodarsk in eastern Ukraine. Artillery picked up along the length of the line of confrontation in the east, it was heaviest around Svitlodarsk for most of the morning and early afternoon. The rate of fire was nearly twice what it has been in the previous two days and included mortar rounds, artillery shells and RPGs.
Russian President Vladimir Putin found himself walking back comments by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that included a threat to cut off gas supplies to European nations. Putin surmised that his Belarusian counterpart made the comments in a fit of anger. The European Union accuses Belarus of provoking the migrant crisis on its western border to undermine EU security. The Union is considering new sanctions against Belarus and its government. In a television interview given earlier today on Rossiya television, Putin said that discussions with Lukashenko had not mentioned the threat to cut off Europe’s gas supply. “Of course, in theory, Lukashenko as president of a transit country could order our supplies to be cut to Europe. But this would mean a breach of our gas transit contract and I hope this will not happen,” Putin said. The absence of a firm assurance that gas supplies will not be affected obviously indicates some latitude for Lukashenko to go farther with his threat as the crisis continues. The Belarusian leader’s threat has sparked worry around Europe as natural gas shortages and rising prices affect available supplies and the market.
The migrant crisis on the Belarusian-Polish frontier continues to worsen with every passing hour. There have been hundreds of attempts by migrants to breach the border and all of them have been stopped by Polish troops. Some 15,000 Polish soldiers now deployed along the border. Their mission is simply to prevent any migrants from crossing illegally from Belarus into Poland. On the international front, the European Union and United States are accusing Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko of manufacturing this migrant crisis in response to sanctions laid upon Belarus by the EU. The Minsk government denies this is the case. Meanwhile, on Europe’s eastern frontier the crisis threatens to develop into the latest flashpoint between East and West.
Almost all the migrants now on the border are from the Middle East. Belarus has been allowing them to fly in for weeks and is now attempting to funnel them through to Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, all member-states of both the EU and NATO. The EU and Poland has set aside its differences for the moment and is focused on bringing an end to the crisis. The EU is expected to bring a new round of sanctions into play against Belarus sometime in the coming days. Poland, for its part, has publicly laid blame for the crisis on Russia, relegating the Belarusian role in this ongoing drama to that of a vassal state.
The potential for escalation is certainly present. Adding to the tension is the fact that Russia is again massing troops and military equipment on its border with Ukraine.