BERLIN – Since Russia invaded Ukraine just under a month ago, Nato and its members have consistently rebuffed calls from Kyiv for the alliance to take actions that would lead it into direct confrontation with Moscow. Pleas for a no-fly zone (NFZ) over Ukraine have been rejected by Nato, which argues that enforcement would bring the alliance into direct conflict with Russia, with the potential for escalation up to nuclear war.
At the same time, members of the alliance have increased deliveries of weapons to Ukraine. Shipments of arms such as American anti-air Stingers and British anti-tank NLAWs have been pouring through the Nato countries that share borders with Ukraine, such as Romania and Poland.
These deliveries are an increasing source of irritation to the Kremlin, whose forces have made much slower progress than expected. Last week Russia fired cruise missiles at a military base in the western Ukrainian city of Yavoriv, just 15 kilometres from the Polish border. The attack on the base – which had previously hosted Nato personnel and was being used to train foreign volunteers – was clearly intended to send a message to Nato that Russia has the capacity to attack the convoys making their way into Ukraine.
To that backdrop came a warning this weekend from Ukraine that a Belarusian attack on western Ukraine in the coming days was “highly likely”.
The Belarusian military has been conducting exercises in the Brest region, near the Polish border. Although it does not appear to be directly involved in the invasion of Ukraine, Belarus has allowed Russia to use its territory to stage its attack. Accordingly, Western officials have persistently suspected that Minsk’s forces may join Russia’s assault.
Moscow may now be pressuring the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, to commit some of his troops to the invasion to help alleviate Russia’s well-documented operational difficulties. Cutting off weapon supplies is likely to be a key aim of any Belarusian offensive in the west.
Fighting in the Volyn region of Ukraine, which directly borders Poland, would drastically raise the chances of fighting spilling over – accidentally or otherwise – into a Nato member state. As Russia’s initial strategy has been frustrated, the war could be about to enter a more dangerous phase, for both Ukraine and its neighbours.
[See also: Why Russia is a prisoner of geography]