The meeting was the first to be held between the two leaders since Minsk helped end a revolt by Russian Wagner fighters.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine’s counteroffensive to take back land captured by his country “has failed” as he hosted his close ally, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, for talks in Putin’s native city of St Petersburg.
The meeting on Sunday was the first to be held between the two leaders since Minsk helped end a revolt by mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group of fighters.
Belarus now hosts Wagner fighters on its territory, after Lukashenko brokered a deal that convinced Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to end a march on Moscow and exile himself to Belarus.
“There is no counteroffensive,” Russian news agencies quoted Lukashenko as saying. Putin interrupted: “It exists, but it has failed.”
Ukraine began its long-anticipated counteroffensive last month, but has so far made only small gains against well-entrenched Russian forces who control more than a sixth of its territory after nearly 17 months of war.
A Telegram channel linked to Lukashenko quoted him as saying in a jocular tone that fighters of Russia’s Wagner Group who are now training Belarus’s army were keen to push across the border into NATO member Poland.
There was no indication that Lukashenko was seriously entertaining that idea.
“They are asking to go West, ask me for permission … to go on a trip to Warsaw, to Rzeszow,” Lukashenko said, referring to Wagner fighters, to Putin, who smiled. “But of course, I am keeping them in central Belarus, like we agreed”.
“We are controlling what is happening [with Wagner],” he said, thanking Putin for vowing to defend Belarus should it be attacked.
The comments came two days after Putin said western Poland was a “gift” from Stalin at the end of World War II, when victorious allies decided on the contours of post-war Europe. Warsaw summoned the Russian ambassador over the remarks.
On Thursday, the Belarusian defence ministry said Wagner fighters had started to train Belarusian special forces at a military range just a few miles from the Polish border.
Accordingly, Poland is moving extra troops towards the border with Belarus.
In response, Putin warned Poland on Friday that any aggression against Belarus would be considered an attack on Russia. He said Moscow would use all means it has to react to any hostility towards Minsk.