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Belarus could join the Ukraine-Russia conflict

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

As an ally of Russia, Belarus has been a base for attacks on Ukraine during the war. So far, it hasn't sent its own forces into the country. But now, Ukraine says there may be, quote, "a provocation." NPR's Tim Mak joins us from northwestern Ukraine near the Belarusian border. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

FOLKENFLIK: Tim, give us some more detail on what Belarus' role has been so far in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

MAK: Well, Belarus has been used as a staging ground for Russian attacks from both air and land but thus far has not joined in on the invasion itself. Now, studies from foreign think tanks have shown that Belarusians may not be happy with their government, and Ukrainian officials think the public wouldn't support such a move. I spoke to Vitaliy Koval. He's the governor of Rivne Oblast. That's a region in northwestern Ukraine. And he said he's even heard stories of Belarusian troops sabotaging themselves to avoid the possibility of an invasion.

VITALIY KOVAL: (Through interpreter) We are concerned about Belarus having troops on our borders and the possible attack. But we also know that Belarus army - they don't want to come here. They try to stop it any way it's possible. They cut their tires and their - break their machinery just not to go here.

MAK: It's also important to understand the geography of this area. In this oblast along the Belarusian border, it's very difficult terrain for offensive military operations, with heavily wooded areas on each side of poorly maintained roads.

FOLKENFLIK: And what about the provocation? Are Ukrainian government officials accusing Russia of staging what's called a false flag attack?

MAK: Well, Ukrainian military and civilian officials are saying that around 2:30 local time on Friday, two Russian military aircraft took off from Belarus. The mayor of Rivne - again, in northwestern Ukraine - this man named Oleksandr Tretyak, he explains what happened next.

OLEKSANDR TRETYAK: Actually, this is a provocation from Russian and Belarusian side. Military Russian aircraft just entered to Ukrainian airspace and then throw down three bombs on - directly on border between Ukraine and Belarus.

MAK: The Ukrainian government is saying that two Russian fighters conducted three airstrikes on the town of Kopani as a way of goading Belarus into the war. As of Friday, a senior U.S. official says there's no indication of Belarusian troops heading in. But there's this tension in the air here that wasn't here two days ago or even yesterday.

FOLKENFLIK: So let's widen out the lens. How are things looking elsewhere in Ukraine?

MAK: Well, air raid sirens are going off all across Ukraine as Russian bombardment of Ukrainian cities continue. Now, 2.5 million refugees have now left Ukraine for other countries, seeking safety from just that, the bombardment. Polish cities are now swelling with hundreds of thousands of refugees, stressing local support systems. But in an overnight address, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy praised his citizens as, quote, "strong people of the steel country." That's a nod to how his military has been able to beat expectations of how the Russian military would perform.

FOLKENFLIK: That's NPR's Tim Mak in Ukraine. Tim, thanks.

MAK: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.