Key developments on Dec. 17-18:
- Ukraine issues warning ahead of Putin-Lukashenko talks on Dec. 19
- 2 killed, 4 wounded in Russian shelling of Kherson
- Fierce fighting rages in Bakhmut, Avdiivka areas in Donetsk Oblast
Ukraine’s military on Dec. 18 warned of potential border escalation ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first visit to Minsk in three years for talks with Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
The rare visit, scheduled for Dec. 19, comes amid a growing number of independent monitoring reports revealing that Russia is stepping up its deployment of military vehicles in Belarus – Ukraine’s northern neighbor.
Belarusian Hajun, a crowdsourced channel monitoring movement of Russian military equipment and weapons, reported that Russia transferred at least 50 Ural military trucks and another 30-truck convoy to Belarus over the past week.
Throughout the full-scale invasion, Kyiv and its Western allies condemned Minsk for allowing Russian troops to use its territory as a staging ground for its invasion.
However, concerns mount that Belarusian troops could directly get involved as Moscow appears to be pressurizing Minsk into participation amid its humiliating battlefield defeats in Ukraine.
On Dec. 18, Commander of the Joint Forces of Ukraine Serhiy Naiev said that Putin would likely try to pressure Lukashenko into launching a ground operation from Belarus during the scheduled meeting in Minsk.
Lukashenko has repeatedly said that Belarus would not directly participate in Russia’s war, but the “union state” tie had strengthened economically and militarily amid heightening Western condemnation, putting Ukraine on alert.
Risks of renewed Russian invasion from Belarus ‘low but possible’
Senior Ukrainian officials have recently warned of a potential renewed Russian offensive from multiple fronts in early 2023, which could include another attempt at capturing Kyiv.
In an interview with Sky News on Dec. 17, Ukraine’s Major General Andriy Kovalchuk said that he could “foresee” Russian troops launching a new major offensive from the north, east, and south. He added that “we are preparing for it.”
Belarus has acknowledged that it hosts Russian troops and equipment on its territory.
Lukashenko on Oct. 10 announced the agreement with Putin on establishing a regional group of forces made of Russian and Belarusian troops in Belarus – and at least thousands of Russian troops have been deployed since then.
Minsk continues to claim that the deployment is “exclusively” for border protection against what it sees as a threat from NATO. Kyiv and its Western allies called it yet another provocation.
Despite heightening tensions between the two authoritarian states and the West, “it is unclear whether Putin will be successful in extracting his desired concessions from Lukashenko,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said in its Dec. 16 report.
The upcoming Putin-Lukashenko meeting “could indicate that Putin is trying to set conditions… (for) a renewed offensive possibly against northern Ukraine or Kyiv in winter 2023,” ISW said, adding that such risks are “low, but possible.”
“Belarusian forces remain extremely unlikely to invade Ukraine without a Russian strike force,” and yet “there are still no indicators that Russian forces are forming a strike force in Belarus,” according to ISW.
‘Now he is an orphan’
On the battlefield, Russian troops are still massing their offensive operations in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka areas, Ukraine’s General Staff said in an evening briefing.
Speaking on national television, Eastern Military Command spokesman Serhiy Cherevaty said that Ukrainian troops are striking targets to complicate Russia’s logistics. He added that Russian troops “are already afraid to unload their artillery stocks less than 100 kilometers from the front line,” but their logistic problem is not severe yet.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Dec. 18 claimed that its forces had captured Yakovlivka, an eastern village that sits north of occupied Donetsk. Ukraine has neither confirmed nor denied the claim yet.
Meanwhile, in southern Ukraine, another day of Russia’s intensifying shelling in the liberated parts of Kherson Oblast had killed at least two civilians and wounded at least four, Halyna Luhova, the head of Kherson City Council said on television.
With the Dnipro River now effectively serving as the front line, the prospects are slim for Russian forces to be pushed out of the artillery range of Kherson.
The rescue operations at explosion sites hit by Russia’s most recent mass strike on Dec. 16 continued over the weekend. An apartment building in the city of Kryvyi Rih in the central Dnipropetrovsk Oblast was among the hit, killing four people and wounding 13.
Darya Herasimchuk, a presidential advisor in charge of children's rights, said on Dec. 17 that the four victims were a 1.5-year-old boy, his parents, and a 64-year-old woman. The couple’s elder son survived the attack.