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Lukashenko before meeting Putin, says Belarus will join war only if attacked

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The authoritarian Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, said Thursday that his military would only join Russia’s war in Ukraine if Belarus is attacked on its own soil — laying down a bright red line ahead of a meeting in Moscow on Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Lukashenko’s remarks, at a news conference in Minsk, seemed to be strategically designed to preempt any request that he deploy forces in Ukraine to help Russia overcome its string of military failures since the invasion began nearly one year ago.

In comments that he dressed up as a stern warning to Ukraine and other Western nations, Lukashenko said: “I am ready to fight together with the Russians from the territory of Belarus only in one case: if at least one soldier sets foot in Belarus to kill my people.”

“If they commit aggression against Belarus, the answer will be immediate,” he said. “The war will acquire a completely different scale.”

The maneuvering by Lukashenko, who is arguably Putin’s closest ally among world leaders, highlighted the difficulties that Russia’s war — and its military failures — have created for its regional neighbors. Other countries, like Kazakhstan, have been flooded with Russians fleeing conscription and have sought to avoid becoming entangled in Moscow’s fight with the West, which has imposed many rounds of stiff sanctions to seeking to undermine Russia’s war machine.

On Thursday, Russia continued its brutal bombing of Ukrainian infrastructure with an overnight barrage of dozens of missiles, which, according to the Ukrainian Air Force, included 12 Kh-22 ballistic missiles, which are virtually impossible for the Ukrainians to intercept with air defense.

“These are those large, very powerful missiles that have a warhead of 950 kilograms,” said Yuriy Ihnat, an Air Force spokesman. “Twelve have been released today in various regions. In particular, four rockets hit Pavlohrad, as well as Konotop, the Kremenchug oil refinery, and other regions were also hit.”

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Ukrainian officials said a 79-year-old woman was killed and at least seven people were injured in a strike in Pavlohrad, a city that lies between the Dnieper River and the eastern region of Donetsk. Infrastructure was damaged in the Western city of Lviv but no injuries were reported.

“The enemy is waging a terrorist war against the people, using those missiles that are extremely destructive. And they’re not exact,” Ihnat said, adding that the Kh-22 missiles often miss their targets by as much as one-third of a mile, or the length of about three city blocks.

In recent weeks, Kyiv officials have warned that Russia could once again attack from Belarus, possibly into Western Ukraine in an attempt to block the transport of weapons being sent by the United States and other NATO countries.

But Lukashenko’s remarks on Thursday suggested that if Russia does attempt such an attack, it will not have active assistance from the Belarusian military. Many of his comments parroted Kremlin rhetoric. He blamed Ukraine and the West for causing the war and accused the United States of seeking to prolong the conflict, saying Washington does not want peace.

“It’s not an invasion; the Ukrainian authorities provoked this operation,” Lukashenko said. “Had they reached an agreement with Russia there would have been no war.”

“There was no invasion,” he continued. “I believe this is the protection of the interests of Russia and those people, Russian people, who live there.”

Lukashenko insisted that Belarus was “a peaceful nation” despite allowing its territory to be used as a staging ground for the war. A year ago, Russian forces in Belarus invaded Ukraine from the north in what was ultimately a disastrous attempt to capture Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. Those troops were repulsed and later fled back into Belarus.

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Since then, as Russia suffered repeated battlefield defeats and heavy casualties necessitating reinforcements and an unpopular military mobilization, Lukashenko never offered to send his troops to join the war, despite professions in Moscow and Minsk of growing military cooperation, including exercises that led to more Russian troops stationed in Belarus.

Lukashenko’s government has faced a battery of Western sanctions since August 2020, when he claimed to have won a new term in elections widely deemed as fraudulent. Belarus is heavily dependent on Russia for economic aid and security assistance, but Lukashenko so far has proved unwilling to sacrifice his own soldiers to help Putin achieve his goals, including the illegal annexation of four Ukrainian territories.

As Lukashenko prepared to meet Putin, Ukraine and Russia on Thursday carried out their latest exchange of prisoners, trading approximately 100 fighters, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry and Ukrainian officials. Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, said the exchange included 63 fighters, who had holed up in the Azovstal steel plant while fiercely fighting Russian troops before ultimately surrendering last spring.

Top Ukrainian officials this week also joined the new worldwide focus on the threat of unmanned aerial balloons and their potential use for espionage and disruption.

The officials said they routinely shoot down small objects that could be used by Russia for spying but mostly seem to be decoys intended to draw the Ukrainian military’s attention, and ammunition, from more important targets.

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On Wednesday, Kyiv’s city-military administration said on its Telegram channel that “around six enemy air targets” were spotted above the Ukrainian capital, setting off air alarms.

According to preliminary information, the statement said, these were “balloons that move under the influence of the wind” and “could carry corner reflectors and certain intelligence equipment.”

“Most of these probes were shot down,” the military administration said. Russian officials have not confirmed that they launched these, or any, balloons.

The widening worldwide interest was set off by the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon over the United States last month, which the U.S. military shot down after tracking it across the country.

At least three other objects believed to be balloons were also shot down in U.S. or Canadian airspace officials said.

Ihnat, the Air Force spokesman, said the focus should remain on Russia’s destructive, and murderous, airstrikes, not on balloons. “I wouldn’t play up this topic,” he said. “These are not new. They’re your grandfather’s methods, invented during the Soviet Union.”

Ebel reported from London; Stern from Kyiv, Ukraine; and Abbakumova from Riga, Latvia.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Fighting in eastern Ukraine continues as Russian forces make minor gains in their attempt to encircle the city of Bakhmut. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked Western allies for fighter jets as Russia mounts a spring offensive. Read the latest here.

The fight: Russia has been targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure with missile and drone strikes since October, often knocking out electricity, heating and water in the country. Despite heavy fighting, no side has made significant gains for months. Western allies agreed to a new wave of elaborate weapons, including Leopard tanks, hoping it may change the balance on the battlefield.

A year of war: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war has set off a historic exodus of his own people, with data showing that at least 500,000, and perhaps nearly 1 million, have left Russia since the start of the conflict in Ukraine. Despite that and extensive sanctions, the Russian economy has remained more resilient than many expected. There are signs, however, that Putin’s luck may be starting to run out.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the