There has been constant Russian and Belarusian military activity for months in Belarus, a close Kremlin ally that Moscow’s troops used as a launch pad for their abortive attack on Kyiv in February.

But this is Putin’s first trip to Minsk since 2019 — before the Covid-19 pandemic and a wave of pro-democracy protests in 2020 that Lukashenko crushed with strong support from the Kremlin.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that Belarus was Russia’s “number one ally” but that suggestions Moscow aims to pressure Minsk into joining what it calls its “special military operation” were “stupid and unfounded fabrications.

Ukrainian joint forces commander Serhiy Nayev had said he believed the talks would address “further aggression against Ukraine and the broader involvement of the Belarusian armed forces in the operation against Ukraine, in particular, in our opinion, also on the ground.”

Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhniy, told the Economist last week that Russia was preparing 200,000 fresh troops for a major offensive that could come from the east, south or even from Belarus as early as January, but more likely in spring.

Moscow and Minsk have set up a joint military unit in Belarus and held numerous exercises. Three Russian warplanes and an airborne early warning and control aircraft were deployed to Belarus last week.

But Lukashenko, a pariah in the West who relies heavily on Moscow for support, has repeatedly said Belarus will not enter the war in Ukraine. Foreign diplomats say committing Belarusian troops would be deeply unpopular at home.

Already, Western sanctions have made it hard for Belarus to ship potash fertilizers, its top export, via Baltic ports.

Western military analysts say Lukashenko’s small army lacks the strength and combat experience to make a big difference — but that by forcing Ukraine to commit forces to its north it could leave it more exposed to Russian assaults elsewhere.

The Pentagon said on Dec. 13 that it did not see “any type of impending cross-border activity by Belarus at this time.”

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