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Should Belarusians be blamed for the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Belarusians face a backlash following the Russian invasion of Ukraine both at home and abroad. In their homeland, Belarusians continue to face brutal repression. Since August 2020, tens of thousands have been arrested and tortured by Lukashenka’s regime. More...

Belarusians face a backlash following the Russian invasion of Ukraine both at home and abroad.

In their homeland, Belarusians continue to face brutal repression. Since August 2020, tens of thousands have been arrested and tortured by Lukashenka’s regime. More than one thousand people have received long prison sentences for opposing the dictatorship. Many have left the country. Those who leave cannot return to their own country, because they may face prosecution, torture, or imprisonment.

But in the West, life for some has become increasingly difficult. Despite their efforts to support Ukraine, they feel othered and blamed for Lukashenka’s support of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Belarus’ Role in the Russia-Ukraine War

In 2014 and 2015, Belarus hosted negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, which resulted in the signing of the Minsk agreements. The agreements aimed to secure a ceasefire in Ukraine’s Donbas region and to bring various other disputes to a peaceful resolution. However, after the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections, Belarus’ dependence on Russia has increased dramatically. Russia, as the only neighbouring country to recognise the results of the presidential election, has provided subsidised energy and other support to the Belarusian authorities.

A road sign in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius

Since February 2022, the Belarusian authorities have been providing territorial access and logistical support to Russia for its war against Ukraine. So far, Lukashenka has resisted pressure to send Belarusian soldiers to fight. But Russian missiles, bombers, and fighter jets all take flight from Belarusian territory, bringing destruction and death to Ukraine. Belarusian hospitals and morgues in the country’s south are overwhelmed by the sheer number of Russian casualties.

Sociological surveys in authoritarian societies are notoriously difficult to conduct and trust. Nonetheless, according to a recent Chatham House sociological survey, only 3% in Belarus support their military involvement in Russia’s expanded war in Ukraine. This is in spite of aggressive propaganda efforts of both Belarusian and Russian state media. Various sources suggest Belarusian soldiers and officers do not even understand the aim of the war and therefore do not wish to fight against Ukraine.    

Discrimination of Belarusians in the West 

In the aftermath of the 2020 elections, tens of thousands of Belarusians left the country because they faced prosecution have lost their jobs or closed their businesses. While many received humanitarian visas, being initially welcomed victims or even heroes in the West, attitudes towards Belarusians have changed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Belarusians have faced invasion-related discrimination in various countries. Belarusian independent media report that in Georgia, landlords do not want to rent properties to Russian and Belarusians. Learning of their nationality promises to get back in touch are not kept. In Estonia, the University of Tartu has decided to reject applications from both Russian and Belarusian students.

In Poland,  a video capturing the behaviour of a dangerous driver, demanding a Belarusian driver “go back to your Lukashenka.” Other stories from Poland include being denied fuel, because “they don’t support Lukashenka here,” refusals to open bank accounts at BNP Paribas, or car tires being slashed at night. Books by Belarusian authors have been removed from some bookshops. While instances of mistreatment are likely to be rare and should not overshadow Poland’s role in supporting those who leave Belarus and Ukraine such reports are still worrisome. 

Some Russian-speaking Belarusians report they are even afraid to speak Russian in public. The situation is incongruous. Many Ukrainian cities under bombardment are predominantly Russian-speaking. Moreover, these besieged cities are defended predominantly by Russian-speakers, whose main fault is to have been born in Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine or Belarus, too close to Russia. 

Belarusian Authorities Lack Support in the Country

Blaming Belarusians as a whole for Lukashenka’s actions demonstrates a lack of understanding of what is actually going on in Belarus. In reality, real support for Lukashenka in Belarus is extremely low. Lack of support is particularly prevalent among those under 50. According to many election observers, Lukashenka actually lost the recent presidential elections, and —despite his many years in power— not to an experienced politician (all of whom were briskly jailed before the election) but to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a housewife who had never been a public figure before. 

In the wake of the rigged elections, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians defied bans and took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands. Over the following months, the authorities, using Russian financial and propaganda support, began a brutal crackdown. More than a dozen people were killed. Nearly all independent NGOs have been closed. Many people were sent to prison for simply following independent media on their phones, or for a “like” on Facebook.

Belarusians React to the War Against Ukraine 

Despite this oppressive environment, in late February 2022, hundreds came out in protest against Russia’s war in Ukraine. Riot police immediately arrested most protesters. Many were badly beaten and placed in cold overcrowded cells, being deprived of sleep and denied access to basic hygiene for days.

Sabotage of railway infrastructure used by the Russian army in the country’s south has become so frequent that, on 17 March, special military units were dispatched to patrol the line. Dozens of people have been detained and harshly interrogated in towns nearby. The Belarusian authorities are trying to learn who is managing to obstruct railways and damage infrastructure.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to persuade Alexander Lukashenka to send at least some Belarusian soldiers to Ukraine, hundreds of Belarusian volunteers are already fighting against Russia on the side of Ukraine. Videos of Belarusian detachments are spreading fast on social networks. And news of the first casualties among them are starting to come in. The Kastus Kalinouski battalion, specially composed of Belarusian volunteers, are fighting and dying in Ukraine. Battalion members claim they are fighting not only for the freedom of Ukrainians but also for that of Belarusians. 

Belarusians in various countries have demonstrated their opposition to the Russian war in Ukraine and their solidarity with Ukrainians. Belarusian diaspora groups around the world are raising money to provide Belarusian combatants with transport, ammunition, and other supplies. Other groups from Belarus help to raise money for refugees in Poland, or for hospitals in Ukraine. For example, the #BelBritain4Ukraine initiative supports Belarusians fighting for Ukraine as part of Ukraine’s Territorial Defence force and a military hospital in Lviv.

In reality, Belarusians see themselves as victims and unwilling Russian allies. Since the 1990s, the Lukashenka regime has been generously subsidised and democratic institutions have been wiped out with Russia’s support, leaving Belarusians without any political representation.

As a matter of international law, the authorities of Belarus are responsible for aiding Russia’s aggression against Ukraine by providing their territory and logistical support. If Lukashenka sends soldiers into battle as part of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Belarusians will be as guilty as those Poles, Hungarians, and Bulgarians who participated in the Warsaw Pact that crushed the Prague Spring uprising in 1968. So far, this has not happened. 

Creating divisions between ordinary Belarusians and Ukrainians and manufacturing language-based discrimination is all in Putin’s playbook. It serves to undermine joint efforts to respond to Russia’s malign influence in the region.

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.  

Yarik Kryvoi
Yarik Kryvoi
Yarik Kryvoi is the editor-in-chief of Belarus Digest and the founder of the Ostrogorski Centre.
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