Alexander Lukashenko’s close ties to the Kremlin have made Belarus a co-aggressor in Russia’s war against Ukraine, which in the future might turn this country into a target of a possible nuclear retaliation. All that was made possible due to the barter Belarussian authorities consented to by allowing Putin to use a strategically important territory in exchange for keeping Lukashenko in office. Yet just how important a part does Belarus play in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and what does that entail for the future of the region?
The Kremlin’s reluctant friend
Lukashenko’s relationship with Putin could be the subject of a textbook on political power games. For years, the Belarussian authorities have been adept at squeezing all manners of economic concessions out of the Kremlin, threatening Russia with switching camps with the West. And Lukashenko has done a rather good job of it: for a long time, Belarus bought Russian oil and gas at cut-rate prices, while Russia invested heavily in whole sectors of Belarussian economy. And when Lukashenko needed to develop closer relations with the European Union (not as often as with Russia, although the reasons were there), he would swap tactics.
It all changed in 2020. The mass protests that swept Belarus in the wake of the presidential election forced Lukashenko to abandon his “meek-calf-suckling-from-two-cows” policy. At the time, Vladimir Putin backed his Belarussian ally in his fight against civil society, and to a great extent helped him hold onto the power reins. Such a favor came at a steep cost: on February 24, 2022, it was time for Lukashenko to pay for the Russian generosity by sacrificing the independence of a whole country and turning it into a springboard for the Russian aggression.
On the first day of the large-scale invasion, four ballistic missiles were launched against Ukraine – the Russian army had fired them from Belarus. In the early hours of the invasion, the media had already published images of a long convoy of armored vehicles crossing into Ukraine on the Belarussian border. This was possible due to the deployment of thousands of Russian troops in Belarus, who had been relocated here as part of bilateral military exercises.
To stay in power, Lukashenko wants to keep Belarus clear of the war
Although the territory of Belarus has been used to attack Ukraine, military operations have not involved any Belarussian troops, and Lukashenko still hasn’t ordered his army to support Putin’s campaign.
Certain Western politicians were possibly under the impression this was evidence of Lukashenko’s self-rule and his frictions with Putin. And while one authoritarian leader appears to be completely uncooperative, the other might be open to a productive conversation. There is, indeed, an explanation as to why Belarussian troops are not yet present in Ukraine, but the real reason might be quite different from what the politicians expect.
First of all, according to the latest sociological surveys, the overwhelming majority of citizens oppose the direct involvement of Belarus in the war. Although the governing system used by Belarussian authorities falls well short of democratic standards, Lukashenko simply cannot ignore his people’s opinions regarding Belarus joining the war effort or not.
After having been promised clear skies, voters may now wonder what happened to that promise. Security forces too, which are hardly willing to give their lives on foreign soil, might wonder whether they should do so out of loyalty for the Lukashenko regime. If Putin calls on the Belarussian army for help, the risk of unpredictable outcomes at home might push Lukashenko into negotiating a postponement of this help. But there’s a twist.
Considering Belarus’s economic and political dependence on Russia, it is highly unlikely Belarussian authorities will mount any real opposition against the Kremlin. Lukashenko’s self-rule is real only in Belarus, whereas his ability of making foreign policy decisions against the backdrop of the ongoing war seems less certain. The conclusion is simple: should Putin needs Belarus’s help, Lukashenko will also be forced to agree to deploying troops to neighboring Ukraine. At the same, the question remains if Putin himself needs help at all: Belarussian troops are less likely to be of any significant use to the Russian army in terms of manpower, whereas their lack of combat experiences certainly won’t help either.
Lukashenko is not really interested in getting involved in the war directly. Providing Russia with free use of its territory to mount an offensive against Ukraine is already a big ask. But not even such an attack seems to scare off some Western politicians, who are willing to go the whole nine yards to put a stop to the conflict, and are thus more willing to talk terms with the Minsk leader. Belarussian authorities themselves are hopeful about keeping dialogue avenues open with Western politicians. This is transparent in the shift in Lukashenko’s rhetoric over the course of 2022. Shortly before the war, the Belarussian president expressed confidence in his eastern ally and his ability to win this conflict swiftly: “Ukraine will never fight against us: this war will last a maximum of three or four days. There will be no one left to fight against us”.
On February 24, during an emergency meeting with his army generals, Lukashenko warned the Ukrainian leadership regarding a possible “special operation”. Lukashenko used the term “villain” to refer to the leader of the Ukrainian armed forces, who ignored his advice of contacting the Russian side in order to avoid the outbreak of the war.
Nevertheless, a month after the war started, Lukashenko’s bold rhetoric started to change. Since early March, Lukashenko said that Belarussians “don’t want any scandal, conflict or war. We are a peaceful people. And we would like to have peace around us”. These attempts at denying the war seem quite commonplace for Lukashenko. When it became clear Russia wouldn’t win the war in Ukraine in three or four days, Lukashenko became concerned for his future and tried to adopt a position that suited him best – that of a peace-maker. For instance, in the first days since the war in Ukraine started, the Minsk leader insisted on Belarus hosting Russian-Ukrainian peace talks, and less than a month before he had called on all parties involved in the conflict to put an end to the war in Ukraine. Although he is directly responsible for Belarus becoming a co-aggressor in the war, Lukashenko never stopped trying to pose as a broker of peace.
Belarussians don’t want Russian nuclear weapons and oppose the war in Ukraine
On March 23, Vladimir Putin announced Minsk and Moscow agreed that Russia should send nuclear weapons to Belarus. The nuclear facility is expected to be finalized by July 1. Once transferred to Belarussian soil, the weapons are expected to remain under Russian control.
So far, this all sounds like an attempt from Russia to provide Western countries with an opportunity to “establish a dialogue” with the Kremlin and to discontinue their support of Ukraine. Still, a scenario where the EU disregards Russia’s call and remains committed to assisting Ukraine seems more acceptable. In this case, Putin will have no other choice but to escalate the situation in order to get through to his “nuclear” enemies in the West.
What of Belarus, then? Lukashenko may well fail to understand what the population expects if the scenario were to play out. His willingness to cling to power at all costs far outweighs the potential consequences, namely Belarus becoming the target of a nuclear retaliation. So what are we to understand? Lukashenko prefers the language of war to that of diplomacy, being predisposed to lead his country towards the pinnacle of militarization. Such a decision would also isolate Belarus, a country that would rather resort to making boisterous threats of using nuclear weapons instead of political dialogue.
The decision to deploy nuclear weapons to Belarus is a clear example of Lukashenko’s inability of making free choices. Sociologists note that 77% of Belarussians are against the deployment of nuclear weapons – a figure that could have stopped Lukashenko had he had a real choice to make. But when it comes to securing his own position of power, Alexander Lukashenko is slowly pushing Belarus to the brink of disaster while desperately trying to keep his word.
The Russian nuclear ploy is not the only thing triggering Belarussians’ discontent. Many oppose the invasion of Ukraine itself, while others have even shown readiness to jeopardize their own freedom to express their opposition.
From the very first day of the Russian aggression, the leader of Belarus’s democratic forces, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other people close to her have condemned the war in Ukraine. The Kalinoŭski Regiment in Ukraine is made up Belarussians who’ve sworn to defend Ukraine against the Russian aggression. According to recent opinion polls, nearly half of Belarus’s population opposes the conflict, while a quarter of Belarussians had difficulties answering when asked about their attitude towards a military action.
Belarussians express their opinions not just in words, but also in action. Despite the unprecedented level of nationwide oppression, at least 1,575 people have been detained for their anti-war stance prior to February 2023.
The widest media coverage was devoted to the story of “rail partisans”, who according to the official inquiry had set fire to electric relay and signal boxes. Three of them received sentences of 21 up to 23 years in prison colonies. Another man, Vitaly Melnik, was shot in his kneecap while he was arrested. Overall, 12 “partisans” are known to have been sentenced for a total of 191.5 years in prison.
Furthermore, Belarussians have started posting online records of military activity. “Belarussian Hajun” is a website monitoring missile launches, the movement of military equipment and flights, helping Ukraine respond faster to developments on the ground. The information is uploaded by people who live in Belarus, so that exposes them to criminal sentences for sending a single picture to Telegram bots.
On February 26, 2023, people heard two explosions in the proximity of the Machulishchy military airfield. An association of former security forces known as BYPOL (which now opposes the Lukashenko regime) reported witnessing a Russian military carrier and snow ploughs damaged in sabotage actions staged by Belarussian partisans with the help of drones.
It’s still hard to say how exactly will Vladimir Putin choose to integrate Belarus in its military plans. Still, it is obvious Alexander Lukashenko is very unlikely to find a way to counter his ally’s decisions with respect to Belarus. Right now, at least, Lukashenko supports Putin not just by means of a sharp rhetoric targeting Western countries, but also with clear-cut actions, providing a bridgehead to Russian troops and military equipment and being party to joint criminal actions against the Ukrainian people.