Volodymyr Zelensky has been on his travels this week, leaving Ukraine for the first time since the invasion to fly to the US to meet with Joe Biden and address a joint sitting of Congress. The Ukrainian president impressed with his Churchillian tone, comparing his country’s defiance of Russia’s war machine to the fight against Nazism in the second world war. “Just like the brave American soldiers which held their lines and fought back against Hitler’s forces during the Christmas of 1944, brave Ukrainian soldiers are doing the same … this Christmas,” he said.

This will no doubt have irritated Vladimir Putin no end, given he has always insisted his invasion of Ukraine was all about ridding the country of its “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis”.

Putin has also been on his travels in recent days, popping across to Minsk to see his long-time ally Alexander Lukashenko. And, for a man who insists he won’t be the first to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the Russian president finds it hard to leave the subject alone for more than a few days at a time. He and Lukashenko briefed journalists about their scheme to adapt Belarusia’s Soviet-era nuclear-capable aircraft to carry “special warheads”. “Special”, in Kremlin-speak, can have decidedly sinister connotations (see also, “special military operation”).

Putin’s visit to Minsk has fuelled speculation that Belarus could enter the war on Russia’s side next year. Some analysts believe that – similar to February 2022 – Russia could use Belarus as the springboard for another assault on Kyiv and that this time Russian troops will be supported by the Belarus military.

But Stefan Wolff, an expert in international security at the University of Birmingham, believes there is an undercurrent of bluff on Putin’s part. Kyiv’s concern of a possible invasion from Belarus means that it has to keep enough troops in the border region who could otherwise be part of Ukraine’s counter-offensives in the south and east.

Interestingly all this talk of beefed up cooperation over Russia’s “special warheads” came as the US agreed to supply Ukraine with its Patriot defence systems. These, Wolff says, could be a game-changer for Ukraine’s air defence, crucial as Russia continues its strategy of bombarding the country’s energy infrastructure.

Meanwhile, there are mixed feelings about the war in Russia’s neighbour to the east, Kazakhstan. Many people among the country’s significant ethnic Russian minority support Moscow and go along with Putin’s explanation that the “special military operation” is necessary to deter an increasingly assertive Nato expansion in the region. But most young people and most Kazakhs are fiercely against the war.

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