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With Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, humiliated again and again on the battlefields of Ukraine, he may be preparing to cash in a favour owed to him by one of his closest allies, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.
Last week, many Ukrainians were alarmed by news that Russian and Belarusian troops are training together in the dense forests along their country's northern border.
Mr Lukashenko claimed that his and Putin's men are working as a "single army" prepared to "repel any aggression".
Residents in Kyiv, which is just 500 kilometres from the Belarusian border, wondered if this was a sign of imminent doom.
The last attempt to capture the Ukrainian capital ended in a stalemate that swiftly devolved into the mass torture and murder of civilians before Russian soldiers finally retreated.
Would Mr Putin really try to have troops reach the capital again? And could the soldiers of Belarus help him get there?
Mr Lukashenko owes his political existence almost entirely to the Kremlin.
However, despite his sabre-rattling against Ukraine, experts say there are some small-but-important signs that the Belarusian dictator is reluctant to deploy men to fight alongside their Russian comrades.
Mr Lukashenko's arch nemesis says the strongman has never been in a more-perilous position.
If he throws in his lot with Mr Putin, Mr Lukashenko may watch in horror as his men stop their march towards Kyiv, turn around and head home to overthrow their despotic ruler.
Under Mr Lukashenko's rule, Belarus has emerged as Mr Putin's greatest ally on the world stage and his only friend in Europe.
The nations have long maintained close ties, even after Belarus became independent in 1991.
However, Mr Lukashenko — the country's first and only president who earned himself the nickname "Europe's last dictator" — has not always been in lock-step with Mr Putin.
The moustachioed farmer-turned-politician was a highly skilled tactician, keeping Russia and the West at a reasonably safe distance, while managing to extract favours from both sides.
That all changed in 2020.
Mr Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in his sixth presidential election — an implausible 80 per cent for himself versus 10 per cent for his youthful female opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Few believed Mr Lukashenko — who, after 26 years in power, was deeply unpopular for his poor handling of the economy, his repressive tactics and his mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic — had won in a landslide.
Anti-Lukashenko protests raged across Belarus for weeks.
The West immediately condemned the vote as fraudulent and Ms Tsikhanouskaya declared herself the true winner of the election.
Faced with the biggest threat to his power in decades, a desperate Mr Lukashenko went to Mr Putin for help.
The Russian strongman delivered, announcing his soldiers stood ready to intervene on his friend's behalf, "if necessary".
He provided financial aid and military support to Mr Lukashenko, who subsequently put down the uprising with a barrage of water cannon, tear gas and stun grenades.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya went into hiding before fleeing for her life to neighbouring Lithuania.
Mr Lukashenko was back on top.
However, this time, his power was largely an illusion.
"I regard [Mr] Putin as my elder brother, and I sincerely believe that he is my brother," an indentured Mr Lukashenko said of the man who bailed out his regime.
"We are very good friends, despite the rifts that may occur. We may even drop a strong word once in a while in manly talk. But there has never been any yelling."
With Mr Lukashenko's fate now bound to Mr Putin's, it was only a matter of time before the Russian strongman came to collect on his friend's debt.
When Mr Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine — a country he has long claimed as his own — Belarus played a key role.
Mr Lukashenko allowed Russian troops to use his country's south as a staging ground for what turned out to be a disastrous dash towards Kyiv.
However, despite being in Mr Putin's pocket, the Belarusian dictator has managed to avoid deploying his own men across the border — for now.
"If you kill our people, we'll respond," Mr Lukashenko said in July.
"We will fight — I say it again — only in one case, if you cross that last metre of our land and invade our land."
Mr Lukashenko has many compelling reasons to avoid this war, according to Mark Cancian, a retired US Marine colonel and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The Belarusian military is very weak. Their total armed force is something like 40,000, the army's 12,000. It couldn't add a whole lot," he told the ABC.
"And it's not a terribly high-quality military, either. They would run the risk of having the experience that the Russians are having, which is that real war is a lot harder than they thought."
Mr Lukashenko has built a false narrative around the idea that he can't possibly free up his men to fight in Ukraine because they're needed to defend the homeland.
"The Russians have been trying now for the past 10 months to get him more involved in the war, and his excuse, generally, has been that the threat from NATO is imminent to Belarus," said David Marples, a professor of Russian and East European history at the University of Alberta in Canada.
"So, therefore, he needs his army to defend his own territory, from a NATO incursion from the north or from the west — though I don't know how many people that statement would convince."
Mr Lukashenko's foe, Ms Tsikhanouskaya, claims the "teetering tyrant" also has a secret fear of mutiny in the ranks if he sends his men into Ukraine.
"Just imagine the situation if he made this order: The Belarusian army went across the border, and they defect, they change sides, they hide, because they actually don't want to fight the Ukrainians," Ms Tsikhanouskaya told Politico in October.
"Just imagine his reputation in front of Putin, in front of the Kremlin — it would be an epic fail."
The thing that might be keeping Mr Lukashenko up at night is a brigade of about 500 Belarusian troops already fighting in Ukraine.
That group — the Kalinoŭski Regiment — is a small-but-spirited band of Belarusian volunteers who have fought with the Ukrainian army for years.
However, their true goal is to eventually oust Mr Lukashenko from power.
"You could end up with two Belarusian armies in Ukraine and I think they'd quite likely meet and there could be points of agreement between them," Dr Marples said.
"The Belarusian army coming into Ukraine from Belarus wouldn't necessarily be loyal to Lukashenko. They're mainly recruits called up for their regular service, so they could be students."
The strange and sudden death of the country's longtime foreign minister last month gave rise to conspiracy theories that someone was trying to intimidate Belarus into war.
Vladimir Makei died at the age of 64 of what Belarusian officials claimed were "natural causes".
Few details were offered about the circumstances of his demise, fuelling unfounded speculation that he may have been poisoned with toad venom.
Who would want Makei dead remains unclear.
The long-serving diplomat was close to Mr Lukashenko, but was still considered a uniquely rational voice in his regime.
Dr Marples agrees the timing of his death "seemed very odd", and with Eastern Europe gripped by paranoia, it fuelled "wartime propaganda".
"It seems to me that the most rational explanation is that he died of natural causes. I'm sure he also was under a great deal of tension," he said.
Mr Putin is likely aware that Belarus is unable to reverse his fortunes on the battlefield, according to Mr Cancian.
However, with Russia mobilising 300,000 poorly trained, inexperienced reservists to join the fight, the Belarusian forest is a convenient location to teach them some basic warfare skills.
"I think that they're using the training areas, because they've called up so many reservists and [Russia's] training base isn't designed for that," Mr Cancian said.
Putting 10,000 armed men within a stone's throw of Kyiv may have the added benefit for Mr Putin of terrifying the people of Ukraine.
"It distracts the Ukrainians a bit," Mr Cancian said.
"Maybe the Ukrainians have to move a brigade or two to that border.
"So there's value to that psychological element."
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As Vladimir Putin gets desperate in Ukraine, could he force an indebted friend to send help from Belarus? – ABC News
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