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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...

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.

Chief of the Belarusian Armed Forces General Staff, Viktar Hulevich. Image: Vechernii Brest.

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.

A meeting of the Belarusian army’s general staff.

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.  

Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan
Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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