Will Belarus Fight for its Russian Master?

Photo: SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 29, 2021: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a boat ride off Russia's Black Sea coast. Credit: Sergei Ilyin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS
Photo: SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 29, 2021: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a boat ride off Russia's Black Sea coast. Credit: Sergei Ilyin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS

Aliaksandr Lukashenka has been complicit in Russia’s invasion since it began, but his recent behavior has fueled concerns that he may expand Belarus’s role.

With Ukraine’s military already stretched thin in the east and the south, it can ill afford a new front in the north — one that would divert much needed weapons and resources from battlefields elsewhere in the country.

It is true that there are good reasons to question whether Belarus will become more involved, not least the issue of whether its army would actually fight. The sabotage campaign organized by the country’s railway workers suggests many citizens have a very clear idea of who they support — and it isn’t Russia.

But Lukashenka is, as ever, under pressure from Vladimir Putin to do more. And as Russia’s leaden and self-destructive military campaign has demonstrated, the need for fresh units is acute. Unexpectedly stabbing Ukraine in the back from the direction of Belarus might offer a clear appeal to hard-pressed Russian generals.

The tone of statements from the Belarusian dictator has been bellicose. In June, Lukashenka said Belarus may need to enter the war to prevent Ukraine’s west from being “chopped off” by NATO. On July 2, he claimed without evidence that Belarusian forces had intercepted Ukrainian missiles, and described the unproven attack as a provocation. On July 3, at a speech commemorating Belarusian Independence Day, he said Russia and Belarus had “almost a unified army” and claimed to have ordered his military to “take aim” at the capitals of his country’s opponents.

It's also important to recall that the Belarusian dictator has done much to assist Putin’s war of aggression. He allowed Russia to invade Ukraine from Belarusian territory, without ever declaring war on his neighbor or offering any plausible legal case for aiding the aggressor state. Russian forces continue to fire rockets across the border at Ukrainian targets and Russian aircraft use Belarusian skies to fire missiles.

Since Putin’s February 24 full-scale invasion, Lukashenka has publicly mulled the possibility of once again stationing nuclear weapons on his territory following a rigged February 27 referendum. This formally renounced Belarus’s status as a neutral and nuclear-free country, theoretically opening the door to Russian nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory. At a televised meeting with Putin in St. Petersburg on June 25, Lukashenka asked his ally to help him mount a “symmetrical response” to alleged nuclear-armed NATO flights near Belarus’s borders. Putin promised to transfer nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles to Belarus in the coming months and helping modify Belarusian Su-25 combat aircraft to carry nuclear weapons.

The dictator has also overseen a buildup of the Belarusian military since the war began. In late May and early June, Belarus established a new operational command in the south of the country and deployed seven battalions close to the border with Ukraine. The armed forces conducted mobilization exercises in the border region of Homiel, where Belarusian civilians have been banned from entering certain districts. Lukashenka also started recruiting a “people’s militia” as an auxiliary to the army and territorial defense forces.

Even if Belarus stays out of the war, these actions force Ukraine’s military to divert vital personnel and intelligence gathering resources from the eastern and southern fronts at a time when they are sorely needed.

Lukashenka’s remarks and military exercises have prompted public concern and condemnation from Ukraine, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In response to the July 3 speech, he called Lukashenka’s remarks a “signal” and said his actions should be carefully watched. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry assessed the threat of a Belarusian invasion this month as unlikely but present. Ukraine has also publicly expressed concern that the Kremlin might use covert methods, such as a false flag attack on Belarusian territory, to bring Belarus into the war.

Most military experts in Ukraine and the US believe it unlikely that Belarus will launch a full-scale ground invasion in the immediate future. The Belarusian military is relatively small and untested on the battlefield, and is unlikely to make a significant impact on the war’s outcome on its own. Moreover, the war is extremely unpopular within the military leadership. Lukashenka could risk facing a revolt among the officer corps if he were to order an invasion.

The war is also unpopular with the general public. Not only has the railroad system been sabotaged but anti-war Belarusians have also sought to slow the Russian war effort with cyberattacks against state institutions, while organizing a civil monitoring group called Belarusian Hajun that collates reports on troop movements. Hundreds of Belarusians have volunteered to fight for Ukraine, viewing the war as a common struggle against Russian domination and autocracy. Many more have already demonstrated they are willing to risk and even sacrifice their lives to combat Russia’s aggression.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to ignore an increasingly bellicose Belarusian regime. Though it seems unlikely that Belarus will join the war in the coming weeks, the already tense situation at the front can change rapidly. Diplomatically and economically isolated for its complicity in the war, Belarus is dependent on Russia like never before, and the two countries have further integrated under the framework of the Union State, including militarily. Earlier this month, Belarus gave Russian forces full control over Zyabrovka airfield, which is only 19 miles from the Ukrainian border. As Lukashenka cedes Belarus’s sovereignty to Russia, his ability to make foreign policy decisions independent of the Kremlin erodes as well.

Badly affected by sanctions and cut off from Western loans, Lukashenka is utterly dependent on Russian economic aid. Belarus receives billions in loans and enjoys subsidized, inflation-proofed gas supplies from the suzerain power. The Belarusian dictator’s ability to say no is more limited than it has been at any point in his near-three decades in power.

In this difficult phase of the war, any Belarusian intervention would be a significant blow. Though Western policymakers have limited power to deter Belarus given its dependence on Russia, there are several steps they can take to make it less likely:

  • Support for Belarusian civil society is crucial, including financial support for civil monitoring projects like Belarusian Hajun, which raises awareness of threatening activity from the Belarusian armed forces as it arises. It is also vital to support independent media, including outlets like Zerkalo, Nexta, and Onliner, which keep Belarusians informed and can help mobilize popular opposition to the war.
  • A strong and well-equipped Ukrainian military is the best deterrent against a potential Belarusian invasion, making continued and substantial Western support for Ukraine’s armed forces all the more essential. In particular, Western policymakers should help ensure there is strong support not just in the east and south, but at the northern frontier as well.
  • Although the war has already damaged Belarus’s economy more than Russia’s, Western countries should make it clear that the sanctions regime specifically targeted against Belarus can and will become even more restrictive if it were to enter the war, or station nuclear weapons on its territory. With its largest patron expected to face its worst economic contraction in three decades, sanctions will become a more effective deterrent against Belarusian aggression in the medium-to-long run as Russia’s economy continues to tank.

Daniel Hojnacki is a Democratic Resilience intern at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) He is an M.A. candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and editor for the digital edition of the SAIS Review of International Affairs. Daniel previously served as an English teacher for the Fulbright program in Grodno, Belarus.

Sasha Stone is a Senior Program Officer leading the work on Russia in the Democratic Resilience program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

 


Photo: SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 29, 2021: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a boat ride off Russia's Black Sea coast. Credit: Sergei Ilyin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS

July 22, 2022