I’VE just returned from a short visit to Ukraine. The key purpose of the trip was to gather some final footage for a two-part television documentary entitled Pictures From Ukraine that examines the war through the prism of my photojournalism in the country since 2014. The films themselves are due to air on BBC Scotland probably some time in March.

This was the third visit I’ve made to the country since the Russian invasion in February last year and was a chance to take stock of what the months ahead hold in store in this bitter conflict which continues to take a dreadful human toll.

Last Saturday, just as I was preparing to leave the capital Kyiv, Ukraine’s cities were subjected to another onslaught of Russian missile attacks. It was around 10 in the morning when the loud thud of explosions rattled the windows of my apartment. The absence of the now familiar air raid sirens in advance of the attack immediately indicated that something new was happening.

For months now, Ukrainians have lived with such warnings but this time in Kyiv, they didn’t come leaving many people in the city puzzled and alarmed. The most likely explanation for the absence of the sirens appears to be that Russia’s rockets were launched from neighbouring Belarus to the north and that they were ballistic missiles which are harder to detect because of the speed and trajectory at which they fly.

It was, of course, from Belarus that almost a year ago Russian forces advanced southwards in an effort to capture Kyiv before being repulsed by fierce Ukrainian resistance.

For some time now, Ukrainian officials have warned of a new looming Russian assault, with Belarus named as one possible launchpad as Moscow seeks to revive its faltering invasion.

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Last week, while in the Ukrainian village of Moschun through which Russian forces passed having come across the border from Belarus, local residents who have returned told me repeatedly of their concerns that once again, the country could be the jumping-off point for another attempt to take Kyiv leaving Moschun once more in the firing line.

Only the region’s burst river banks, thick mud and waterlogged fields around northwest Ukraine’s border with Belarus currently act as a deterrent to such Russian moves, say military analysts, but that could well change in the coming months.

Earlier in December, Valery Zaluzhny, head of the Ukrainian armed forces warned that Russia could well have another go at taking Kyiv from the direction of Belarus.

Just this week, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy echoed such concerns stressing that Russia was “gathering forces for another escalation” of the nearly year-long war between the two countries.

According to military analysts, anywhere between 10-15,000 Russian troops are already in Belarus where joint military exercises and air force drills, using all of Belarus’s military airfields are currently under way and scheduled to continue until February 1.

Much of this activity could of course simply be an effort by Moscow to compel Ukraine to divert soldiers from frontline areas in places such as the south and especially the east of the country where much of the heaviest fighting right now is concentrated around Soledar and Bakhmut.

But diversion or not, Ukraine cannot afford to ignore the threat from Belarus. Which brings us to the thorny question of just how far the authoritarian Belarusian regime under President Alexander Lukashenko would be prepared to

go to please Moscow. Providing a staging post for a Russian troop invasion and a platform from which to rain down missiles on Ukraine is one thing, but might Lukashenko go that step further, committing Belarusian forces to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine?

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Such a move would mark a serious escalation and have profound implications internally according to the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, Tsikhanouskaya said that Lukashenko would face “massive disobedience” if he decided to send troops to fight alongside the Russians in Ukraine.

“This status quo now in Belarus – whereby Lukashenko controls repression and detains 10 to 15 people every day – it is comfortable for Putin,” she said.

“The Kremlin can get its launching pads for missiles. Putin uses Belarus’s military centres and infrastructure for (his) own purposes and uses Belarus as a loophole for sanctions,” Tsikhanouskaya told reporters at Davos.

Few doubt that Lukashenko knows full well that most Belarusians see him and his regime as the enemy, not the Ukrainians, and for that reason, he finds himself walking something of a political tightrope.

For years, the man who has called himself the “last dictator” in Europe has sought to balance his country’s geopolitical affiliation between Russia and Western states. But when Russian president Vladimir Putin supported Lukashenko during mass protests in 2020 that the Belarusian regime suppressed by force, it added to his reliance on the Russian leader.

A semblance of stability in Belarus right now is, as Tsikhanouskaya says, most likely what Putin wants, but what if the war in Ukraine begins to turn against Russia and the Kremlin does indeed call on Lukashenko to deploy Belarusian troops in support?

To date, so much of this war has been a series of twists and turns and anything could yet happen including just such an eventuality. For this reason, international leaders more than ever need to remain vigilant over developments coming out of Belarus. They must watch for changes in the relationship between Putin and Lukashenko that could signal direct engagement by Belarus in the conflict in Ukraine.

Above all, the West must create a clear strategy of response should Belarus throw its military weight behind Russia.

This past week has been a difficult one for Ukrainians. First, there was the fall of Soledar and its capture by Russian forces. Then last Saturday, the devastating loss of at least 40 civilian lives – many of them children – from the Russian missile strike on an apartment block in the city of Dnipro.

To cap it all off, yesterday saw news that the three main figures in Ukraine’s interior ministry had been killed in a helicopter crash in an eastern suburb of Kyiv. All have been bitter blows to Ukrainians.

The coming months as Ukraine heads into the spring and an expected escalation on the battlefield will be another testing time. Just what role Belarus might play in this remains to be seen. But if one thing is certain it’s that the West must keep a close eye on the machinations in Minsk.