A week before the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the leaders of Russia and Belarus, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, met in Moscow on Friday. They mostly avoided discussion of the war — a sign of their awkward alliance, and even more awkward political relationship.
A year ago, Putin used Russian forces stationed in Belarus to launch his ultimately catastrophic attempt to conquer Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Lukashenko, however, has resisted any pressure to deploy his own troops to Ukraine. At a news conference on Thursday in Minsk, he set expectations for his Moscow trip by announcing that Belarus would only join the war if attacked.
On Friday, Putin made clear he had gotten the message. “By the way, I watched your news conference yesterday,” he told his guest.
Lukashenko replied: “It would be better if you didn’t watch it. You would probably get upset.” Putin said it was not so. “Why? No,” he said. “I share your positions and approaches, you know.”
That exchange was not the only uncomfortable moment. At their joint appearance, Putin opened by saying: “Thank you for agreeing to come.”
Lukashenko, whose country is heavily reliant on Moscow for economic and security aid and is viewed by some as a vassal state of Russia, answered: “As if I could not agree.”
“Well, we are all busy people,” Putin said. “We have enough to do at home, I understand.”
Lukashenko, before meeting Putin, says Belarus to join war only if attacked
Instead of dwelling on the war, the two leaders largely focused on their widening economic partnership. Putin said that bilateral trade between the countries was on the rise and hit a record of more than $43 billion last year.
Meanwhile, Lukashenko said that Belarus had fulfilled “100 percent” of its defense and security agreements with Russia and, he insisted, was “doing even more.”
That more, however, apparently does not include sending troops to help Putin achieve his military goals.
On Thursday, Lukashenko had said: “I am ready to fight together with the Russians from the territory of Belarus only in one case: if at least one soldier sets foot in Belarus to kill my people. If they commit aggression against Belarus, the answer will be immediate. … The war will acquire a completely different scale.”
In Moscow, however, Lukashenko said that Belarus was ready to start manufacturing Russian attack planes. “I was informed by the government, that they are ready to start production of the Su-25 aircraft, which, in my opinion, has proven its value in Ukraine,” Lukashenko said, referring to the Soviet-designed Sukhoi jet.
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“We are ready to produce these in Belarus with corresponding technological support from the Russian Federation,” he said.
If Putin was disappointed, by the results of the meeting, he did not let on.
Meanwhile, at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, the exiled leader of the Belarusian political opposition, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, on Friday called for an international “coalition of countries” to help push for political change in Belarus and “not tend to the Belarusian issue when the Ukrainian issue is solved.”
“Belarus shouldn’t be overlooked,” Tikhanovskaya said. “It’s important now, it’s important for our regional European security. The war will not be over until Belarus is free and democratic.”
Loveday Morris in Munich contributed to this report.