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Story by Eilish Hart for The Beet
Everything changed for Alexander Lukashenko in August 2020. Following a presidential vote marred by political persecution, mass arrests, and election fraud, the authorities proclaimed that he had won yet another landslide victory. Tens of thousands of Belarusians protested and the authorities responded with a brutal crackdown that escalated into a civil society purge. As Western sanctions poured down on Belarus, Lukashenko turned to Vladimir Putin for the financial and political support he needed to stay in power. However, this came at a price. Internationally isolated and lacking legitimacy, Lukashenko threw his lot in with the Kremlin and moved forward with strengthening the Russia-Belarus Union State. Then, in February 2022, Moscow used Belarusian territory as a launchpad in a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Eight months later, Lukashenko is still trying to avoid direct involvement in Russia’s war — at the expense of Belarus’s sovereignty.
This article first appeared in The Beet, a new email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
“The Republic of Belarus has been and remains our closest neighbor, loyal ally, and reliable partner,” Sergey Shoigu intoned at a joint board meeting of the Russian and Belarusian defense ministries on November 2.
Reading from a piece of paper, Shoigu decried NATO’s increased presence in Central and Eastern Europe (a direct result of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine), painting it as an imminent threat. “Our allies will also come under attack, especially the brotherly Republic of Belarus,” he said. “Under these conditions, the Defense Ministry considers ensuring the military security of the Union State a priority task.”
Two and a half weeks earlier, thousands of Russian troops began arriving in Belarus for the formation of a new joint force. This Belarus-Russia military group, which previously existed only on paper, is ostensibly meant to defend the Union State to which the two countries formally belong. (Under the alliance’s joint military doctrine, an attack on one member is considered an attack on the entire Union State.)
The deployment prompted fears that Moscow and Minsk could be planning a renewed assault on Ukraine from the north. Alexander Lukashenko’s statements did little to allay concerns: he accused Ukraine of “planning strikes” on Belarus, adding, “If you want peace, you must prepare for war.” Shortly thereafter, Belarusian media reported that Minsk had begun a “covert mobilization” (something Lukashenko later denied).
Military analysts, meanwhile, maintain that Russian and Belarusian troops are unlikely to launch such an attack. Lukashenko’s regime has played a supporting role in Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, thus far, allowing Russian forces to use Belarus as a staging ground but stopping short of sending Belarusian troops across the border.
By all appearances, Lukashenko would like to maintain this status quo. But the final decision on whether or not Belarusian forces invade Ukraine likely lies with Vladimir Putin, experts told The Beet. “If Putin decides he wants Belarusian troops, I don’t think Lukashenko will be able to say no,” said analyst Katia Glod, a non-resident fellow at Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). “But at the moment, for a whole series of political and military reasons, it’s just not something that would be a really great asset.”
‘Lukashenko is worried’
According to Glod, dragging Belarus into the war could actually be a liability for Putin — and the military benefits would likely be negligible. The Belarusian Armed Forces, which currently total less than 50,000 active personnel and 290,000 reservists, lack combat experience and only have a handful of highly-trained troops. Writing on Twitter, defense analyst Konrad Muzyka of Rochan Consulting described the Belarusian Armed Forces as “relatively weak.” The Belarusian military, he explained, is “largely a mobilizational force” that would need to call up some 20,000 men to reach full peacetime strength.
Then there’s the political risks of mobilizing for war. “Lukashenko is worried. He understands that if he’s dragged into the war, if there are casualties suffered, this would have a negative effect on his legitimacy and how people perceive him — even his core electorate,” political analyst Katsiaryna Shmatsina told The Beet.
The authoritarian leader’s legitimacy has been hanging by a thread since 2020, when a blatantly rigged presidential election sparked anti-regime protests across Belarus. Lukashenko’s security forces violently suppressed the protest wave, carrying out thousands of arbitrary arrests and torturing hundreds of detainees. Amid the upheaval, Lukashenko traveled to Moscow, where he received political and financial backing from Putin, and pledged to strengthen ties with Russia. “Lukashenko wouldn’t have survived if it weren’t for Putin’s support. And the price he paid was loyalty,” Shmatsina said.
Now, the prospect of direct involvement in the war is putting Lukashenko at risk of losing what little domestic support he has left. Public opinion polls by Chatham House show that 30 percent of Belarusians support the “special military operation” (Kremlin parlance for the full-scale invasion), but only three percent think their country should join the war on Russia’s side. What’s more, only one in five believe that Belarusian military personnel would agree to take an active part in the war against Ukraine — an equal share think Belarusian soldiers “would refuse to fight or follow orders and lay down their arms.”
Exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran against Lukashenko in 2020, has also claimed that neither he nor the Russian command are confident that Belarusian servicemen would follow orders to invade Ukraine.
Tatsiana Kulakevich, an assistant professor of instruction at the University of South Florida, has expressed similar views. Writing for The Monkey Cage in mid-September, she argued that many of the conscripts that make up the Belarusian army “share the public’s dissatisfaction with the Lukashenko regime,” while Belarusian special operations forces are needed at home to deter popular unrest. “Lukashenko cannot afford to give up these troops as they ensure his grip on power,” she said.
Meanwhile, some 1,500 Belarusian nationals are reportedly fighting on the Ukrainian side. The Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment, named after a Belarusian revolutionary who led an uprising against the Russian Empire in the 19th century, is the most prominent force among them. Its stated mission is the “liberation of Belarus through the liberation of Ukraine.” Glod suggested that these Belarusian volunteers may be provoking genuine fears in Lukashenko about an attack from Ukraine.
The fact that Russia continues to suffer defeats in Ukraine is likely compounding Lukashenko’s paranoia, she added: “He’s seen that Putin isn’t doing well on the battle ground. I think he now realizes that Russia might lose [the war].”
According to Lukashenko’s announcement, the Union State’s Regional Grouping of Forces (as it is officially known) will consist mainly of Belarusian troops. The Belarusian Defense Ministry later said that the Russian deployment includes just shy of 9,000 personnel. However, Muzyka was quick to point out that the joint force’s Russian component is made up of formations that “have been badly mauled in Ukraine.”
“Their combat capabilities are questionable, to put it mildly,” he wrote in a tweet. “So a new grouping would primarily consist of Belarusian units and Russian reservists. Lukashenko could finally claim that the capabilities of Belarusian and Russian units are equal, and he would probably be right.”
At present, there’s little indication that this military formation is preparing an imminent attack on Ukraine, but it will likely keep Kyiv on high alert. “We have to focus more on what else Lukashenko can do and what he has done,” Glod urged. Russian forces, she recalled, have continued to launch missile and drone strikes from Belarus — and Belarusian instructors are reportedly training Moscow’s new recruits. “All of these things are potentially more dangerous than just sending troops,” she said.
Moreover, the activation of the Regional Grouping of Forces bodes ill for Belarus. According to political analyst Artyom Shraibman, the deployment points to the continued erosion of Belarusian sovereignty — “a process that began in 2020 and accelerated in 2022.” “What was on paper is becoming a reality. But at the same time, this becoming a reality is an indication that Lukashenko is giving up more sovereignty to Russia,” Glod concurred.
Indeed, Lukashenko’s Belarus is lumbering towards even deeper economic, political, and military integration with Russia, within the framework of the Union State. The agreement, signed in 1999 but never fully implemented, has been the subject of intermittent talks for decades. But the negotiations progressed significantly after Putin supported Lukashenko during the 2020 opposition protests in Belarus.
In November 2021, Putin and Lukashenko signed a package of 28 “union programs” on an array of economic and regulatory issues, and approved an updated military doctrine. Allegedly, Moscow and Minsk have implemented nearly half of these “programs” this year. And it isn’t just the activation of the Regional Grouping of Forces that’s raising red flags. A tax-harmonization agreement reached in September drew criticism, as well. “What Belarusian economists are saying is that this is essentially selling your tax sovereignty for two kopecks,” Shmatsina told The Beet.
Though Lukashenko has resisted total integration in the past, his increased political and economic reliance on Russia means his capacity to do so is markedly diminished now. Which means it may come down to what Moscow wants. “The complete loss of Belarus’s sovereignty didn’t make sense for Russia before,” Shmatsina explained. “It’s convenient to have an independent state in your neighborhood, [where] you have lots of influence. [...] But now I don’t have a clear answer or prediction.”
Russia’s war against Ukraine only makes things more uncertain. Putin has consistently chosen escalation and appears increasingly desperate to consolidate Russia’s gains (as exemplified by Moscow’s proclaimed annexation of partially-occupied Ukrainian regions). In this context, there’s little reason to believe that the Kremlin will loosen its grip on Belarus — even if the war drastically weakens Russia.
“I don’t agree with those optimists who say that Ukraine’s victory would mean that Belarus would be liberated,” Shmatsina underscored. “[There’s] a much gloomier prospect where Belarus becomes a bargaining chip in Ukraine and the West’s negotiations with Russia.”
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