Can the Belarusian army make a difference in the Russia-Ukraine war?
Last week, regional and international media, including major networks like CNN, again reported about the “increasing probability” of Belarus joining Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier, an advisor to the Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs said there was now a 60 per cent of probability Belarus would invade.
Meanwhile, whatever intentions Russian President Vladimir Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka might have, there is little more Belarus can offer in military terms to Russia’s war efforts. Rather, such a deployment would serve to further the Kremlin’s political aim of deepening Belarus’ international isolation.
The road to Kyiv
The latest reports of a forthcoming Belarusian attack seem to stem from recent diplomatic ruptures between Minsk and Kyiv. On 19 March, due to impediments encountered by the Belarusian embassy in Kyiv, Minsk recalled its diplomatic staff from Ukraine.
So far, the Russian army has been using Belarusian territory as a base from which to launch missiles and cross into Ukraine. Belarusian hospitals are also treating scores of wounded Russian soldiers, which in itself does not amount to participation in the war, because international conventions allow it.
Geographical proximity makes it logical to destroy or conquer Kyiv from Belarusian territory. Indeed, this was the aim of Russia’s military operations in the first weeks of the war. Even complex, multiple-launch rocket systems can reach the Ukrainian capital from Belarus. And land forces are well-placed to quickly advance on Kyiv. There are fewer fortifications and fewer Ukrainian troops in north Ukraine compared to the east or the south. This is despite the fact Ukrainian authorities have worked to militarise its northern borderlands in recent years.
Preparations for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are likely to have begun only in recent months. As a result, the infrastructure necessary to conduct a large-scale operation was missing. Dedicated roads, bridges, and pontoon bridges (for example near Pinsk) all had to be hastily built after the war began. While Russian troops operate unhindered in Belarus’ southern regions, there is a lack of purpose-built facilities.
The Russian army has been forced to transport its wounded soldiers to Belarusian civilian hospitals in Naroulya, Mazyr, and Homel. Minsk has not prioritised military infrastructure along its border with Ukraine. It even abandoned Soviet-era bases there (for example, airbases in Pruzhany and Kobryn) and, in the 2000s and 2010s, relocated units to other regions of Belarus. Russia, by contrast, has been preparing its own borderlands with Ukraine for years. Moscow has stationed troops, built new barracks, roads, hospitals, and whatever else is needed to establish a rear base for the war.
Belarus’ lack of preparedness is unlikely to help Russian war efforts to seize Kyiv. Indeed, it could undermine them. No wonder on 25 March, the Russian leadership announced henceforth it was going to focus on the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine. Russia can rely on the brand-new military infrastructure and facilities it has constructed there over the past eight years.
No soldiers for Putin?
Since mid-March, Moscow has been looking for new forces to send to the front. In its search, it has even turned to recruit Syrians. Belarus has cautiously remained on the sidelines. On March 11 as Lukashenka met with President Putin in Moscow, Russian aircraft (as the Ukrainian government claims) fired on Belarusian villages from Ukrainian air space. Even this alleged “false flag operation” did not provoke Minsk to join the war.
Kyiv, certainly, has been keenly watching for signs of an attack from the North. Ukrainian generals talk of Belarusian troops entering the fray with two decisive objectives—to encircle the Ukrainian capital, and to interrupt Ukrainian army supplies coming from the West. On 22 March, former Deputy Chief of Ukraine’s General Staff Ihor Romanenko told Al Jazeera that Belarus might send 10 to 15 battalions (up to 800 men in each) to support Russian troops in Ukraine. According to Romanenko, they might help their ally to seize Kyiv. On the same day in televised remarks, Ukrainian Security Service Major General Viktor Yagun predicted Belarus might deploy its troops in Ukraine in three waves of 5,000 men each. Major General Yagun named the western Volyn region as a possible invasion route, which would cut a main Ukrainian supply route for Western military aid.
But Minsk has hardly any troops to send to Ukraine. To meet the numbers cited (above) by Ukrainian officials, it would require the withdrawal of all battle-ready units from other strategic locations inside Belarus. This would leave Belarusian regions undefended. Such a development is hard to imagine considering current tensions with neighbouring NATO countries.
At the same time, Putin’s pressuring of Belarus is not about numbers. If Minsk can be forced to send even a symbolic detachment of soldiers to Ukraine, this will suffice for some of the Kremlin’s aims for Belarus: namely to entangle Minsk deeper into the Kremlin’s embrace and to reduce its options to escape Putin’s clutches.
Belarus lacks not only the manpower for an invasion. The Belarusian military needs new arms and equipment to be of any material use to Putin. Since its independence and until August 2020, Belarus has only acquired some relatively modern air defence equipment and some aircraft from Russia. Its army met some of its modernisation needs by purchasing Belarusian and Chinese equipment, which was enough only for Belarus’ own needs—not for participation in a large-scale invasion. Moreover, the Belarusian army’s equipment differs from its Russian ally. This creates problems for interoperability.
After protests erupted across the country in 2020, Belarus has become increasingly isolated. Minsk has rushed to buy Russian arms, including Mi-35 attack helicopters and BTR-82A armoured personnel carriers, which are ideal for offensive operations. So far, it has bought enough BTR-82As for just two battalions. Time is still required time to train battalion personnel to use them. Therefore, on 12 March, President Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenka agreed on supplies of new, sophisticated Russian arms for Belarus.
To sum up, for years Minsk has refused to make preparations for a war with Ukraine. This has become a safeguard against Kremlin pressure. The Belarusian army has neither the men nor the equipment to participate in the invasion of Ukraine. The borderlands with Ukraine have very few military facilities to support a full-fledged offensive.
Kyiv has noticed Minsk’s reluctance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has hinted at Minsk’s resistance to Putin’s pressure saying, “I really want these words to be heard by our common neighbours, the Belarusians. Peace between relatives, peace between neighbours, and peace between brothers—we must achieve this with them too. And we definitely will.”
If treated strategically, Minsk withholding active troop involvement in north Ukraine might help Ukrainian forces resist the thrust of Putin’s invasion from other directions. In turn, this might prevent further escalation and create better chances to end the war and overcome its consequences.
Will Lukashenka join Putin in invading Ukraine?
Speaking to Japan’s TBS TV on 17 March, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka stressed that Belarus may be the only country to support Russia in current conditions, but “we are not going to join the war.” Despite Belarus’s dependence on Russia in literally everything, Minsk has so far prevailed in its attempts not to send soldiers to Ukraine.
At first glance, Minsk can do little but follow Moscow’s war plans. By tradition and by current circumstances, Belarus is tightly linked with Russia. After the rigged August 2020 Belarusian presidential elections, and the sharp deterioration of relations with Ukraine and the Westen states that followed, dependence on Russia has skyrocketed. Indeed, all serious trade, including that with non-Western countries, has increasingly needed to be rerouted through Russia. Since May 2021, Belarusians can only fly abroad via Moscow, just like in Soviet times.
The Belarusian authorities ended up nearly helpless in the face of Moscow’s wishes to mobilise Belarusian forces against Ukraine. Minsk hurriedly allowed Russian forces to operate on Belarusian territory in January–February. Moscow has been given a surprising degree of access in the deployment of its troops in Belarus. This use of Russian units stationed on Belarusian soil has allowed Putin to drag Belarus into the war.
On 1 March, at a joint meeting of the Belarusian Security Council and the Council of Ministers, in regard to Belarusian involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict Lukashenka said, “Of course, the group of troops remaining on the territory of Belarus after [the training exercise] manoeuvres had to be deployed. I became aware of this on 24 February at 5 a.m., after being informed by Putin.”
In other words, Lukashenka was informed at the very last minute. Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly announced the offensive in a televised address broadcasted shortly before 6 a.m. on 24 February. In light of these circumstances, further comments by Lukashenka’s sound like a form of capitulation: “I’ll say something more. The Russian leadership never raised the question of our participation in this armed conflict. And truly, what for? Don’t they have the weapons that we have? Do they lack human resources? The ability to fight?”
To date, no credible evidence supports the Belarusian army’s participation in Russia’s war on the territory of Ukraine. Belarusian authorities emphasise the entire border is under the control of Belarusian border guards. But in the military sense, the Belarusian army covers only the western half of its 1,000-km-long border with Ukraine. At present, the Russian army (officially 10,000 troops) is deployed along the eastern half, between Homel and Mazyr. In addition, Russian aircraft and helicopters remain in Luninets, Homel, and Baranavichy after manoeuvres.
An illusion of capitulation
It appears Minsk still maintains some strategic autonomy, despite the collapse of relations with its neighbours and the West. This was illustrated at a recent conference attended by Lukashenka and Belarusian security officials. Lukashenka claimed Belarus would soon “make a decision” on recognising the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). Lukashenka went on to add, “Putin and I talked about it. We don’t have time for that today. Second, that’s not a problem. And thirdly, we must clearly understand: we are taking a step—what will become of this step?”
Lukashenka’s caution and lack of clarity about DNR and LNR recognition are familiar to anyone who followed his discourses surrounding the possible recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (since 2007), or about recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea (since 2014). Now, as before, it means only one thing: Minsk will only recognise the DNR and LNR at gunpoint.
To distance itself from Russian operations in Ukraine, Belarusian state officials stress that all military forces Belarus has are needed to counter NATO forces in Poland and the Baltics. They argue the Belarusian army should be strengthened by Russian weapons for this task. Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems and one or two S-400 surface-to-air missile system batteries are among their suggestions. Indeed, Moscow has long refused to provide these advanced weapon systems to the Belarusian army. Minsk is now using the war to talk Putin into a deal.
So far, the Belarusian army has not only managed to avoid entering Ukrainian territory, but it has even reduced its deployment plans along Ukraine’s border. At the beginning of the war, Belarusian officials declared an intent to send another five battalions to the Ukrainian border to reinforce the five already present there. But on 12 March, Chief of the Belarusian Armed Forces General Staff, Viktar Hulevich, said that the number of battalion groups in the area would remain at five.
Sitting on the fence
Pro-Moscow activists in Belarus are disappointed with Minsk’s lack of enthusiasm. Andrei Ivanou, a Belarusian activist, well-known for his participation in a public campaign to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, recently lamented, “Belarusian society is being partially fooled.” Belarusians are not enthusiastic about the “special operation” in Ukraine. There appears to be little desire for any public display of support. Indeed, on social media, pro-Moscow activists have expressed criticism of Belarusian authorities, who have not endorsed any public events in support of Russia’s invasion.
Minsk’s position is not a calculated response to Russia’s stalling military operation in Ukraine. Its current policy is in-line with that of recent years. For example, even after the domestic political crisis of the rigged 2020 elections, where Belarus was forced to yield ever more to Putin’s pressure (which included strengthening its own military defences against Ukraine), Minsk did so without haste.
A case in point is the composition of Belarus’ operational military commands. Last autumn, a new, “Southern” military command was proposed along the Belarusian border with Ukraine. The Southern command would be in addition to a “Western” command on the border with Poland, and a “Northwestern” command adjacent to the Baltic States. The Belarusian leadership ordered its establishment not immediately but in two years’ time. This speaks volumes about Minsk’s reluctance to wage war with the brotherly people of Ukraine. And it also demonstrates how unaware Minsk was of the war plans of its “bigger brother” (Russia).
To sum up, despite becoming critically dependent on Russia after August 2020, Belarus still retains some strategic autonomy. This autonomy is frequently dismissed or undervalued, despite its potential for maintaining regional security and for the preservation of Belarusian statehood. On the one hand, the loss of Belarusian independence and joining Putin’s war in Ukraine would not help democratic change in Belarus. On the other hand, the struggle for democracy in Belarus is a geopolitical one, and cannot be separated from the fight against the war in Ukraine.
At Belarus Digest, we think it is very important to explain to the world in English the role of Belarus in Russia’s war against Ukraine and the role of Belarusians. We want to help distinguish between the people of Belarus and the authorities of Belarus. We aim to shed more light on this and need your help. At the moment Belarus Digest does not have any stable funding and depends only on the generosity of its readers. Please donate or get in touch with us for more options to read more articles like this.