We need to help Ukraine stop Russia before Belarus joins
Watch for a second front in the Ukraine war. Vladimir Putin is pressuring Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to bring his troops into the fight.
Until now, the prospects for this have been slim. The war is unpopular in Belarus, and top military commanders apparently doubt the wisdom of direct intervention (Belarus has been helping Russia with airbases and hospitals).
But if Russian forces stall in the east, watch for the Kremlin to take the war back to the west of Ukraine. The United States must eliminate this option now.
The beautiful cultural city of Lviv near the Polish border may well become a prime target. Last month when I was there, streets were dotted with men in military uniforms. Some were foreign volunteers — I heard American, British and Australian accents. The atmosphere remains sober.
We tried to order a beer at an outdoor cafe, but it was after 6 p.m., and while the fighting may be concentrated in the east, in the west there’s still curfew, alcohol restrictions and missile terrorism. Places like Lviv and Kyiv face four to five air-raid sirens a day.
The entire country needs more air defense. And fighter jets. This has been a constant refrain from our Ukrainian friends. At the end of June, a Russian missile struck a military base just west of Lviv near the Polish border. Are we ignoring wake up calls?
Lviv is preparing for war. Ukraine is mining its border with Belarus. Lviv’s mayor recently held “an operational” meeting with civilian and military leaders and is establishing defense headquarters in each of the city’s districts. Counterterrorist defense units training to be ready for round-the-clock duty. Ukraine’s foreign ministry has stepped up its warnings to Minsk.
Putin may not be able to destroy Lviv, but he can attack it. And from Belarussian territory (and with Lukashenko’s support), Russia can open another front. Several hundred Belarusian tanks are in principle ready to start their engines roughly 160 miles away.
This may seem like a weak card for Moscow to play, but Putin’s calculations may be changing. At the recent NATO summit, President Joe Biden together with 50-plus countries promised an aid package that may well tip the balance in Ukraine’s favor.
So far, the force ratio in the war in Eastern Ukraine has roughly been one Ukrainian artillery systems for every 10 Russian ones. Biden has pledged 500 additional systems to Ukraine. Putin needs to stop the Western weapons flow to prevent a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive.
What Russia needs going forward is a protracted conflict. We need deterrence.
The West must give Ukraine the air-defense systems and fighter jets it needs. Slovakia has donated its own air-defense system and promised fighter jets. Poland has also offered important military assistance. But old Soviet-era MiGs are no match for Russian airpower.
The Senate is beginning to press the Pentagon. In a July 19 letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley, a group US senators — Democrats and Republicans — called for fourth-generation US fighter jets to be part of the administration’s latest military assistance package. It’s high time — and getting late. Training takes time.
Consider the effect if Belarus enters the war. The flow of weapons from the West to Ukraine’s East could be disrupted. New refugees would pour into Poland.
The Polish border with Ukraine is just 46 miles from Lviv. When I was there a few weeks ago, it was impossible for me to cross the border either way by car — the line of vehicles stretches for miles and the waiting time in both directions is 12 to 24 hours (I walked across). If Russia persuades Belarus to properly join the war, we’ll have chaos on the border again, and Lviv will quickly find itself isolated.
It may well be that Belarus’ dictator Lukashenko will stay out of direct involvement in the war. He has a difficult balance to strike between remaining in Moscow’s good graces and holding on to power at home.
But it’s Putin we need to keep an eye on. If there’s a tipping point in Ukraine’s favor in the east, a desperate Russia will try to move the war back to the west. We must act now and box Russia in.
Iulia Sabina-Joja teaches at Georgetown and George Washington University, runs the Middle East Institute’s Black Sea program in Washington, DC, and is co-host of the AEI podcast “Eastern Front.”