Throughout the winter, the Belarusian dictator Aliaksandr Lukashenka effectively served as the Kremlin’s press secretary. In contrast to Vladimir Putin’s restrained speeches, he openly insulted Western leaders, threatened Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, demanded the acceptance of the Russian ultimatum, and claimed that if Russia attacked, Kyiv would fall in three or four days (he was, in fact, the author of this now legendary estimation.)
Judging by the aggressive (even by his standards) rhetoric, Lukashenka truly imagined he would emerge victorious from the all-out war on Ukraine, without paying any price. A decisive Russian strike was supposed to disorganize the Ukrainian army and force Zelenskyy to flee the country. While a new pro-Russian government was being installed, Belarus would have sent a limited contingent to Ukraine for supposed peacekeeping duties without directly participating in hostilities, as it had done a month earlier in Kazakhstan. Ultimately, his forces would have returned home victorious from occupied Ukraine without any losses.
But as early as the second day of the invasion, it became clear that the Russian “special operation” had not gone according to plan. The sight of burning columns of Russian tanks dramatically changed Lukashenka’s rhetoric. Overnight he turned from a hawk to a dove, urging Russia and Ukraine to sit down at the negotiating table. These diplomatic efforts ended just as quickly when it became clear that Turkey, not Belarus, will be the principal mediator.
While the Belarusian dictator had allowed Russia to use his territory to launch airstrikes, a ground invasion, ballistic missile attacks, and a full logistics system to run through his country in support of Putin’s war, he had balked at sending troops. This did not go down well with the Kremlin, which persistently pressed Lukashenka to share the bloodshed on the Ukrainian front — he had, after all, repeatedly promised that the Belarusian army would fight alongside Russia if necessary. But when the need actually arose, Lukashenka’s rhetoric changed again. According to his new argument, it is the West that wants to drag Belarus into the war, but “we have unraveled their insidious schemes, so our army will stay in Belarus to defend the [Russo-Belarusian] Union State’s frontiers.”
Throughout March, as Russian troops besieged Kyiv, the media were speculating whether or not Belarus would join the war. A full-scale deployment seemed unlikely because of the poor combat readiness of Belarusian units. The most likely scenario was assessed as raids by special operations forces (SOF) in western Polesie — encompassing western Belarus and northern Ukraine — to interrupt supply lines and draw Ukrainian troops away from other battles. Between five and 10 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) comprised of Belarusian SOFs and mechanized brigades maneuvered along the Ukrainian border all month. At one point, their equipment was branded with the same markings used by troops of the Russian puppet republics of the DNR and LNR, and it seemed the invasion was imminent. In the end, they never crossed the border.
At the end of March, Russian forces retreated from Kyiv, and the involvement of Belarusian troops on the northern flank lost any practical sense. Eight battalion tactical groups (5,000-6,000 soldiers) are still engaged in a constant rotation on the Ukrainian border in order to reinforce it and divert some Ukrainian forces, but the likelihood of any offensive action is assessed as very low.
So why has Belarus not joined the war then despite evident pressure from Russia?
First, Belarusian involvement in the war against Ukraine is hugely unpopular among Belarusians. Even though more than 30% of the population supports Russia, only 3% support Belarus’ direct participation in military action against Ukraine. Even the majority of Lukashenka’s supporters are against it. Of course, in an authoritarian regime, popular opinion, even the opinions of a regime’s supporters, can be disregarded. But there is another more pressing reason why the regime’s troops stay at home — that is the state of the Belarusian army, particularly its ground forces.
Despite having large numbers of vehicles, Belarus has only 20 modern T-72B3 tanks. The rest are outdated vehicles from the 1980s, at best. Morale is no better. While rumors about unrest and purges among the top brass are likely a part of Ukrainian psy-ops, low morale and reluctance to fight among the military, especially conscripts, is a fact. Ukrainian border guards had already recorded cases of defections from the Belarusian military – even before Belarus entered the war.
The Belarusian military is not only poorly equipped; it is also very small. Belarus currently has two ground forces commands – the Western Operational Command, covering the border with Poland, and the North-Western Operational Command, covering the border with the Baltic States. Each command has two mechanized brigades comprised of three motorized infantry battalions and two tank battalions, one artillery brigade, and technical and logistics support units. The strength of one brigade is about 1,500 men (3,000 in wartime.) This means that at this moment, one brigade can field no more than two-to-three BTGs.
Another six BTGs can be fielded by three special forces brigades, given their total approximate strength of 6,000 (9,000 in wartime.) Overall, the entire combat capability of the Belarusian army is currently estimated at about 16 BTGs or 11,000 men (25 BTGs or 17,000 men after partial mobilization.)
It is barely sufficient to protect the territory of Belarus, which would be left unguarded if any significant contingent were sent to Ukraine. In his talks with Putin, Lukashenka stresses this very point – the Belarusian army must remain in Belarus to defend the frontiers of the Union State.
In reality (and unsurprisingly), Lukashenka needs the army not so much for protection from external enemies like NATO, as from internal ones. In 2020, the army, especially the SOF, played a crucial role in quelling popular protests against his rigged re-election. Sending them to Ukraine would not only lead to the units’ almost certain destruction, but could also trigger a new wave of mass protests, which in the absence of the army, might be more successful than in 2020 – a lose-lose situation. As a result, the Russian military would very likely have to divert troops from the front in Ukraine to quash a Belarusian uprising.
Even so, Lukashenka hasn’t been sitting still. Since March, the Belarusian army has been undergoing active reform, most importantly to create a third (Southern) Operational Command on the Ukrainian border.
The new command will consist of three mechanized brigades instead of two, as in the Northern and North-Western commands. Two will be heavy brigades – with BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles and T-72 tanks from the army’s reserves, while the third will be a light brigade with BTR-82As that Russia handed over to Belarus last year. As envisioned by military planners, the maneuverable light brigade will be well-suited to the swampy terrain of Polesie, stretching along the entire Belarusian-Ukrainian border.
Another feature of the Southern Operational Command could be a separate missile unit equipped with the Iskander ballistic missile system. It is also planned to strengthen each operational command with one battalion specializing in radio-chemical and biological defense and equipped with three TOS-1A heavy flamethrower systems. The command will be the first to form a separate TOS-1A battalion. According to the Belarusian Defense Ministry, to equip these units, it will purchase nine new TOS-1A Solntsepyok systems from Russia.
The Belarusian authorities also focused on the reform of the territorial forces. Technically, Belarus established territorial defense forces in 2011, with 120,000 personnel. In reality, though, these only existed only on paper. The Ukrainian militias’ successful actions in the war’s first weeks showed the Belarusian authorities the importance of units like this.
The establishment of a Belarusian volunteer regiment within the Ukrainian army has accelerated this work even further. Despite their relatively small number (500-1,000 strong), the fact that Belarusian volunteers openly declared an intention to return to Belarus and overthrow the Lukashenka regime by force makes them a top-priority threat.
In May, in the two western regions of Belarus regarded by the authorities as the most “disloyal” — the Lida district of the Hrodna Region and the Kobryn district of the Brest Region — the first territorial troop units, comprising 430 men, was formed. According to Lukashenka, the plan is to create a detachment of 50 trained men in each of the county’s 1,150 village councils, with weapons stockpiles for each, so that in case of war they can be transformed into partisan units. Lukashenka has also ordered that all rescue personnel, firefighters, and foresters, be armed and trained, creating another source of paramilitary manpower. He instructed Ihar Shunevich, the infamous former interior minister and current head of the Belarusian Society of Hunters and Fishermen, to create his own armed brigade of 5,000 men. Because of partisan activity on the railway in the first period of the war, railway guards were given firearms and the right to shoot to kill without warning. In short, Belarus is turning into one big military camp, preparing for a prolonged siege.
Lukashenka has not yet entered the war, but he is preparing more than ever for armed conflict. The creation of a new operational command close to Ukraine is without a doubt a new threat to that country. Yet this is not a matter of months; it will take a year or two and anyway, the emerging outlines of military reform suggest that the main focus will not be on increasing Belarus’ offensive capabilities, but on keeping Lukashenka in power.
For now, the only real threat to Ukraine from the north is still Russian missile strikes, not Lukashenka’s tank columns.
Tadeusz Giczan is a Non-resident fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Giczan is a London-based journalist with NEXTA, Belarus’s largest telegram channel, and a PhD candidate at the University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.