How desperate is Russia to find an ally?

As artillery pulverizes the city above, musicians play for people living in a metro station beneath Kharkiv. March 26, 2022.

As soon as it became obvious that Russia didn’t have nearly the force necessary to accomplish it’s goals in Ukraine—and that became obvious quickly—Vladimir Putin began casting around for some other source of young people to feed into the meat grinder.

The first choice was Belarus. After all, it was right there, and the proudly self-labeled “last dictator in Europe” Alexander Lukashenko is one of Putin’s most loyal allies. Belarus shares a long border with Russia, has traditionally been a rubber stamp for Russian policies, and predictably was one of just five countries to vote against a UN resolution condemning Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Belarus doesn’t have either the numbers or the equipment necessary to make a huge difference in events near Kyiv, but if they tossed a few thousand hapless guys across the western edge of their shared border with Ukraine, it might force Ukraine to relocate some of those forces in the east, relieving at least some pressure on Russia troops that look pinned down near Bucha and Hostomel.

Except Belarus doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to come across that line. For days, there were predictions that Belarusian forces were on their way into Ukraine, and convoys of trucks carried Belarusian soldiers toward points to the west. Then those convoys went back east. Then west again. Hopefully, gas prices are cheap in Belarus, because their country appears to have specialized in shuffling all the pieces around. Lukashenko was even called to Moscow to kneel before Zod, and still returned home to continue playing the game of Yes, boss, any minute now. Putin was, after all, the only world leader who supported Lukashenko after he Ryanair Flight 4978 at fighter-jet-point so that the dictator could make off with an opposition leader and journalist.

Putin and Lukashenko are cut from the same cloth, and have supported each other on multiple occasions — that includes in “helping” refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, who were unfortunate enough to find their way into either Russia or Belarus, to find their way to a camp conveniently right on the border with Poland. Then shaving them across.

But there was that one time when there seemed to be a bit of friction between Lukashenko and his CEO. That was in 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine the first time. With protests in his own country, and concerns that Russia would gobble up Ukraine then look on Belarus as a tasty dessert, Lukashenko stopped delivering speeches in his usual Russian, switched the Belarusian dialect, and made repeated statements saying “We are not Russian, we are Belarusians.”

Not only was Lukashenko concerned by the opposition of people inside Belarus to Russia’s invasion of their neighbor, it’s hard to be a dictator when you don’t have a country left to dictate to. For the next three years, things were chilly between Minsk and Moscow, with a series of trade disputes and arguments over exactly where to draw the border. Since then, relationships have warmed up again — as if obvious by how Russia has based much of its attack on Ukraine from sites in Belarus. Not just planes and missiles, but that infamous “40 kilometer convoy” of forces moving down toward Kyiv came out of Belarus.

Even so, Lukashenko has not yet provided Putin with any soldiers. On the other hand, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Belarusian volunteers working with the Ukrainian military. Belarusians inside and outside Belarus are not supportive of Putin’s invasion.

So where can Putin go for more forces? There have certainly been attempts to pull more Russian troops off of other borders — though well-justified paranoia means that many of those troops have to remain in place. There have also been claims that “40,000 Syrians” were on their way to Ukraine. Putin seemed excited to have them. So long as they were coming for free. Those forces, if they exist at all, are still in Syria.

But there was a sign on Saturday that the Russians had located an ally willing to send actual troops to Ukraine.

This truck is full of troops waving the banner of South Ossetia. That’s another “breakaway republic” where Russia has fanned dissatisfaction and recognized a country-within-a-country to help dissolve ideas of national unity, this time in Georgia. The problem with this particular ally is that the total population of South Ossetia is about 53,000 people. If they were actually sending their armed forces to Ukraine, they would all likely fit in the truck in this tweet.

But it’s not likely that South Ossetia is actually sending anyone at all. Because to reinforce just how much South Ossetia really wants to be part of Russia, and not part of Georgia, Russia keeps about 3,500 troops stationed there — just under 7% of the total population — in case anyone forgets who they’re supposed to favor .

So the truck above likely contains some of those Russia troops, taken from one “breakaway republic” in Georgia, and shipped to another “breakaway republic” in Ukraine. It’s all for show, and the numbers aren’t enough to make even the most modest difference.

What it really shows is just how few friends Putin really has left.

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