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.
Belarus reluctantly reverses its security policies
Meeting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka on 14 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that in the next year Belarus and Russia would hold joint exercises or similar events almost monthly. Belarusian special operations forces on 21 September joined the Russian “Caucasus-2020” military drills. Simultaneously, an unprecedented number of Russian paratroopers – three battalion tactic groups – are taking part in the so-called Slavic Brotherhood exercise near the Belarusian cities of Brest and Hrodna (14-25 September). Alongside Lukashenka’s fierce anti-Western rhetoric and Belarus’ Russian arms purchases, these new developments demonstrate how much the Belarusian government has had to give in to Putin following the rigged Belarusian parliamentary election on 9 August.
War games on the borders
Just how dramatically Belarusian security policies have changed can be gleaned by looking at the balance of military cooperation between Minsk and Moscow. During his visit to Belarus on 16 September, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu complained that only 30% of the two countries’ annual cooperation programme had been implemented, and urged that at least 70% be fulfilled by the end of the year. Such low numbers are more to blame on the tension between Minsk and Moscow that existed until August, rather than on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Increased military cooperation with Russia fits into the militaristic political campaign recently launched by Lukashenka. Speaking at a women’s forum on 17 September, Lukashenka announced: “we were forced to return the troops from the streets… mobilise half the army and close the state border with the West, above all with Lithuania and Poland… strengthen the border with our brotherly Ukraine.”
This bombastic statement turned out to be an exaggeration. Border crossing points continue working as usual. By “closing the borders”, Lukashenka apparently meant the earlier Belarusian army deployment behind the borderlines. Beginning on 17 August and until the beginning of September, the Belarusian army and border guards held a series of exercises in Belarus’ Hrodna region that borders Lithuania and Poland.
While before that he blamed Russia for disturbances in Belarus, as early as 21 August the Belarusian president switched to accusing the US and EU of organising the protests inside Belarus and increasing military activities on Belarus’ borders. Although he talked about the danger of irredentism in Hrodna region, Lukashenka also emphasised that the “Belarusian problem [of post-election protests] today for Russia is no less important than it is for Belarus. It is Russia that is under attack first of all”. He went on to repeat the same opinion again later.
How sincere is Minsk’s militarism?
Since the beginning, Minsk’s militarism has looked strange. Not least because concurrently with adopting militarism, the Belarusian defence ministry has strived to reduce the damage it is causing. In the second half of August, the ministry held three conferences with foreign military attaches accredited in Minsk to explain the situation. Meanwhile, Belarus’ neighbours have doubted the extent of the threat posed by Minsk. On 17 August Lithuanian defence minister Raimundas Karoblis criticised Belarus for creating tensions by launching extraordinary exercises on the borders with Lithuania and Poland, but added that “we do not see up to now any military threat from Belarus. Although these are extraordinary exercises, they include standard, regular procedures.”
Already on 12 September at a conference of the country’s security agencies Lukashenka signalled his willingness to review recent army deployments on the western border. “If NATO troops in Poland and Lithuania have completed the so-called exercises and do not move there anymore, we should respond appropriately. Without need, we cannot keep the armed forces there in such numbers for a long time. Especially since it is not cheap,” stated Lukashenka in an address to defence minister Viktar Khrenin. The latter replied that NATO was effectively only repeating what it had done in the spring by moving one battalion near the Belarusian border. Therefore, Khrenin added, the Belarusian army activities around Hrodna had been wrapped up and the troops returned to garrisons.
The Lithuanian military noticed the Belarusian manoeuvres and on 15 September, supreme commander of Lithuanian armed forces Valdemaras Rupšys said that because of increased military exercises by Belarus and Russia along the Lithuanian border, “there are some concerns, but there is definitely no direct military threat.” Lithuanian defence minister Karoblis added that extraordinary exercises in Belarus were losing their momentum and new drills with Russia were not new, but planned well beforehand. No wonder that on the same day, the head of the international military cooperation department at the Belarusian Defence Ministry Aleh Voinau revealed that as far as international cooperation was concerned, “some tactical-level events with Poland and Lithuania still remain on the agenda,” although he warned that Minsk could stop cooperating with these partners.
Buying arms in exchange for Putin’s support
Minsk also made concessions to Moscow regarding the purchases of military hardware—not a small thing for cash-strapped Belarus, which has always had to buy arms from Russia with hard cash, not on a credit loan. On 24 August, the Belarusian army signed contracts with Russian manufacturers for the purchase of armoured personnel carriers BTR-82A for two battalions as well as four Mi-35M attack helicopters. The army also signed a plan to purchase air defence systems from the Russian firm Almaz-Antei up to 2025.
Until this point, the Belarusian army for years had moved towards becoming less expensive and more suited to the needs of the country. In particular, it had successfully resisted the efforts of Russia to sell it BTR-82’s and found a solution by replacing older armoured personnel carriers with Belarusian modernisations of Soviet models or new Belarusian-designed armoured vehicles. The same was true of attack helicopters: Minsk planned to gradually give them up and replace them with a mix of attack drones and Yak-130’s.
These recent contracts, alongside invitations to the Russian army to increase cooperation, indicate a political calculation by the Belarusian leadership. It hopes to find allies in the Russian establishment among those in the security sphere and defence industries. These allies should, the Belarusian government hopes, help Minsk to prevail over more liberal and Lukashenka-critical economic elites inside the Russian government apparatus.
To sum up, the Belarusian government has significantly changed the multi-directional foreign and security policies it had been pursuing over the previous fifteen years. These changes are not the result of a rational revision of the previous course. They were imposed upon Minsk by the difficult situation that the current government finds itself in as it tries to play games with Russian politics by making unprecedented concessions to the Russian military establishment.
In Belarus’ case, any meaningful struggle to change the regime has a geopolitical dimension, and only political dialogue inside the country can reduce the opportunities for external actors to intervene. Dialogue that results in negotiated democratisation and not simply destabilisation of the regime should be the aim of those interested in democratic and independent Belarus.
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