While Russian forces have now entered the break-away republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian forces have also been reported moving closer to the Ukraine border from Belarus.
On Sunday, Belarus Defence Minister announced that the Russian forces in Belarus, who had initially been supposed to stay until February 20, would remain in Belarus indefinitely, as the situation in the Donbas region began to escalate. Western officials and independent analysts are worried that the Russian troops might have been stationed there in preparation for an invasion of Kiev. US officials warned Belarus of severe sanctions, as well as possible protests from domestic elites, if they participated in such an invasion.
Yesterday, 22 February, the company Maxar Technologies released new satellite imagery which showed that field hospitals had been added to Russian garrisons in Belarus, and that Russian troops had moved closer to the Belarus-Ukraine border.
Perhaps this is merely being done to put pressure on Kiev's decision-makers, or maybe it's connected to the launching of a larger-scaled invasion which US President Biden warned about yesterday. While we can say for sure that Belarus' strongman Alexander Lukashenko has forfeited control over military matters to Vladimir Putin, if Russia launches an invasion of Ukraine from Belarusian territory it would show a clear lack of independent decision-making on the Belarusian regimes' part.
So far, Lukashenko has not recognised the break-away republics in Ukraine; instead Belarus' Foreign Affairs Ministry has said that he "understands and respects" Russia's decision to recognise them.
Formally recognising them would lead to tough sanctions, not only from the West but also from Ukraine. Ukraine has already stopped buying Belarusian fertilisers, and banned these from being allowed to transit through Ukrainian territory. Now access to one of Belarus' largest export destinations is at stake, since recognising the Donbas break-away republics would most likely cut off any other significant Belarusian exports from the Ukrainian market.
Any decisions Lukashenko takes on Ukraine will certainly be reflected in its relations to other post-soviet countries in the future. If Belarus formally recognises the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, a formal recognition of the break-away republics in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, will certainly follow. Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov has already mentioned that there is "no need for additional signals" to Belarus concerning recognition of the Georgian break-away republics. Earlier in February, Lukashenko's comments on all the former Soviet republics joining a union state with Russia sparked outrage among various law makers and political leaders in these countries.
Lukashenko's decisions in the coming days will show what independence Belarus has left in relation to Russia.