Ukrainian officials reported on Saturday that it has received heavy incoming artillery fire for the first time from neighboring nation Belarus. That country is a Russian ally but has not been directly involved in the invasion that began in February.
The Russians have used Belarus as a staging area and for logistical support during the invasion, although the nation has not previously been directly engaged.
The town of Desna in the country’s northern Chernigiv region was hit by 20 rockets according to the northern Ukrainian military command. No casualties were initially reported. The Saturday attack from Belarus came one day after Ukraine announced a strategic retreat from the city of Severodonetsk.
Ukraine’s military intelligence services issued a statement saying the strike is “directly linked to Kremlin efforts to pull Belarus as a co-belligerent into the war in Ukraine.”
At the time of the airstrike on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin was scheduled to be in a meeting with Belarusan President Aleksandr Lukashenko in St. Petersburg.
Western observers are becoming increasingly concerned about the greater involvement of Belarus in assisting the Russian war effort. Russia expert Mark Voyger of the Transatlantic Defense and Security Program at the Center for European Analysis said earlier this month that the actions of the Belarusian military present new dangers in the conflict.
He said that intelligence reports show Belarus is planning military exercises very near the Ukrainian border. He noted that Russia has consistently used military drills by its allies as “cover for their aggressive actions.”
Voyger also said that Putin has been applying pressure to Lukashenko to “force him to take a more aggressive stance to launch more aggressive actions out of Belarus, involving Belarusian troops.”
Lukashenko wrote to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres last month with a warning that international efforts to supply Ukraine with military equipment and weapons “could lead to World War III.” He claimed that his only concern was to “prevent the regional conflict in Europe from escalating into a full-scale world war.”
Lukashenko also announced this month that the Russian government is providing Belarus an additional $1.5 billion in return for its participation in “import substitution programs” designed to help circumvent Western economic sanctions.