After breaking away from a crumbling Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Belarus stayed loosely aligned with Russia, unlike its neighbors. Now those bonds have strengthened with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Longtime President Alexander Lukashenko has allowed Belarus to be used as a staging ground, while so far avoiding sending his own troops to join the attack, and has cleared the way to potentially host Russian nuclear weapons. The tight embrace is payback after Russian President Vladimir Putin bankrolled his government for many years and came to Lukashenko’s aid following a disputed 2020 election which sparked a popular uprising, repression and sanctions.
Belarus’s military value to Russia is its strategic position, lying just to the north of Ukraine with a common border several hundred miles long and its southern territory extending close to Kyiv. It also borders on NATO member countries Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. About 30,000 Russian troops may have been in Belarus during joint military drills in February, making it the largest military buildup there since the Cold War, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said before the exercises started. Weapons and other military equipment in the country included S-400 missile systems, the Washington Post reported. Those forces stayed on after the drills finished, paving the way for the Russian assault on Ukraine just days later.