Britain’s Defense Ministry said Friday that Belarussian president Aleksandr Lukashenko’s assertion early this month that thousands of troops from his country and Russia would form a new Group of Forces is unlikely to come to fruition.
Lukashenko had said 70,000 Belarussian troops and as many as 15,000 Russians would make up a new Russian-Belarussian Group of Forces.
The British ministry said in an intelligence update posted on Twitter that despite a video that Belarussian officials have released to show the arrival of Russian troops in Belarus, “it is unlikely that Russia has actually deployed a significant number of extra troops into Belarus.”
The ministry sized up the capability of both Russia and Belarus to round up troops in the Twitter post: “Russia is unlikely to be able to generate combat-ready formations of the claimed size: its forces are committed in Ukraine. The Belarussian military highly likely maintains minimal capability to undertake complex operations.”
The ministry said the announcement of the combined forces of Russia and Belarus was “likely an attempt to demonstrate Russian-Belarussian solidarity and to convince Ukraine to divert forces to guard the northern border.”
Also Friday, the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia experienced a series of explosions, according to a Reuters report. Zaporizhzhia is the home of Ukraine’s nuclear power plant. The extent of the damage from the blast was not immediately clear.
Meanwhile, Iranian military personnel are “on the ground” in Ukraine, assisting the Russian military with drone operations that have been terrorizing the country and targeting power facilities, the Pentagon said Thursday.
“Our understanding is that they [Iranian forces] are on the ground in Crimea, assisting Russian military personnel as they conduct these drone operations in Ukraine,” Pentagon press secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder told reporters.
When asked about Russia denying it uses Iran-made drones, Ryder responded, “It’s obvious that they’re lying.” Russia seized the Crimea Peninsula in 2014. Since then, it has reopened old Soviet bases and trained troops there.
He added that Russia has turned to countries such as Iran and North Korea for additional ammunition and weapons because its weapons stockpiles, including precision-guided munitions, “are depleting.”
He called out Iran for “exporting terror, not only in the Middle East region but now also to Ukraine.”
NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoană condemned Iran’s behavior and called on Tehran to cease its involvement in Russia’s invasion.
“No country should support in any way this kind of barbaric war,” Geoană said during a virtual event held by German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Also Thursday, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby blamed Iranian-made drones launched from Crimea for recent attacks on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
“Russia has received dozens of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] so far and will likely continue to receive additional shipments in the future,” Kirby said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday night accused Russia of preparing to blow up a hydropower plant in the Kherson region – an area illegally annexed by Russia and the recent focus of intense fighting.
Zelenskyy aide Mykhailo Podolyak said Russia is mining the Kakhovka dam and the transformers at the power plant, according to Agence France-Presse. Destroying the dam would flood the Dnieper River and halt the advance of Ukrainian troops.
But, Zelenskyy said, it also could destroy the North Crimean canal and cut off a water supply to Crimea.
Kherson is the first major city to be captured by Russia at the beginning of its invasion in late February and the largest one it still holds.
Russian-installed civilian officials have urged residents to flee, and massive evacuations began earlier this week, relocating 15,000 residents from the city and surrounding area as of Thursday, the officials said.
Kherson was one of four regions, along with Luhansk, Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia, illegally annexed by Russia. President Vladimir Putin declared martial law in the four regions Wednesday.
Ukraine restricted power use for the first time Thursday in response to Russian attacks that have damaged parts of the country’s electrical infrastructure. The outage was scheduled so repairs could be made to some of the power plants damaged or destroyed by Russian missiles over the last several days.
Ukraine’s power grid operator said that supply restrictions would be in place from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m., and as colder months approach, it may need to take such steps again.
On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council met in a private meeting at the request of the United States, Britain and France to discuss the issue of Russia using Iranian-made drones in its war in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said that in the past week alone, more than 100 Iranian-made drones have slammed into power plants, sewage treatment plants, residential buildings, bridges and other targets in urban areas.
Washington, London and Paris say Tehran’s supplying of these UAVs to Russia is a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which allows for transfers of restricted items to or from Iran only when approved on a case-by-case basis by the Security Council. No such approval has been sought.
“We anticipate this will be the first of many conversations at the U.N. on how to hold Iran and Russia accountable for failing to comply with U.N. Security Council-imposed obligations,” said Nate Evans, spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.
“As was outlined during today’s meeting, there is ample evidence that Russia is using Iranian-made UAVs in cruel and deliberate attacks against the people of Ukraine, including against civilians and critical civilian infrastructure,” he said, adding that the procurement of arms was in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Ukrainian officials have said the UAVs used in waves of attacks during the past week include Iranian-made Shahed-136 attack drones that carry explosives and crash into their targets.
Iran’s U.N. ambassador told reporters that his government categorically rejects the “unfounded and unsubstantiated claims,” which he said were part of a disinformation campaign against his government.
Russia’s deputy U.N. envoy told reporters that the allegations are “baseless.” He said there have been no arms transfers in violation of the resolution, and no Iranian drones were supplied to Russia for use in Ukraine.
Margaret Besheer, Patsy Widakuswara and Jeff Seldin contributed to this article. Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.