If Alexander Lukashenka continues to support Putin, he may bring direct fighting to his own country
The Kremlin’s decision to escalate its war against Ukraine – by announcing a partial mobilisation and annexing occupied territories in southern and eastern Ukraine – has left Alexander Lukashenka, the Belarusian leader, with a difficult choice.
Since February, the Lukashenka regime has acted as an accomplice to Russian aggression against Ukraine, providing its territory as a staging ground for the invasion, and for rocket and air strikes.
If Lukashenka accepts Russia’s new escalation, it will almost certainly bring direct fighting to Belarus. If he abruptly withdraws his support for the conflict, he may in turn lose the support of Russia – which he needs to stay in power.
To date, Lukashenka’s military has not entered into the war directly, despite many predictions that it would do so. And over time, Belarus’s role in the war has become less and less noticeable – a status quo that suited the Lukashenka regime quite well.
But recent events – mobilisation, annexation and now the attack on the Kerch bridge linking Crimea to Russia – have seriously shaken this status quo. And it seems that the Belarusian president has chosen to support the Kremlin’s escalation.
As Russia launched a massive rocket attack on Ukraine on 10 October, Lukashenka declared that a joint regional group of Belarusian and Russian troops had been formed in response to an “escalation” at the countries’ “western borders”. He claimed Ukraine was planning attacks on Belarusian territory.
Backstage talks with the West
It’s hard to believe Lukashenka has not thought about the possible consequences of Putin being defeated – Ukraine’s successful counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region last month has demonstrated that Russia could well lose this war.
These considerations probably inspired new attempts by Lukashenka to establish a dialogue with the West.
At the recent UN General Assembly session in New York, Belarusian foreign minister Vladimir Makei held a series of ‘behind the scenes’ meetings with Western diplomats.
Makei did not disclose any details of the talks, but was very optimistic about the results, assuring journalists that “there are very good, concrete positive agreements regarding future prospects”.
According to Franak Viačorka, who was at the General Assembly and is a senior adviser to exiled Belarusian politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Makei suggested that the West “turn a page” on its relations with Belarus.
Makei allegedly hinted, said Viačorka, that it is now necessary to protect the Lukashenka regime from Russia, otherwise there might be “referendums” in Belarus about joining Russia – just like those in the occupied territories in Ukraine. He asked for sanctions to be lifted from the country’s potash industry (a major export product) and promised to gradually release political prisoners if the West does not put Minsk under too much pressure.
Aside from Belarus’s role in the war, a key stumbling block in its relationship with both the EU and the US is the problem of political prisoners: currently, at least 1,348 people are imprisoned for political reasons in Belarus.
In early September, Lukashenka spoke about a large-scale amnesty and a possible pardon for some prisoners. “There are people whom we can freely release ahead of schedule,” he said.
Two weeks later, he unexpectedly pardoned three political prisoners, including Oleg Gruzdilovich, a well-known journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. (According to unofficial information, Gruzdilovich’s release was the result of secret negotiations between Minsk and Washington.)
The authorities also made it clear that the prospect of releasing more political prisoners is possible – albeit with limits. However, according to prominent opposition politician Pavel Latushka, the release of several hundred prisoners is not enough to “turn the page”.
Makei also allegedly offered the services of Belarus as a mediator between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
Western diplomats and politicians have not commented on these negotiations, but prospects for a deal between Lukashenka’s regime and the West look doubtful, at least on the terms that Minsk is putting forward. This week, the EU warned Belarus of further sanctions after its announcement of a joint regional military group with Russia.
Demonstration of loyalty
The Kremlin’s decision to raise the stakes in its war against Ukraine has threatened to put Belarus on a direct path to war.
Minsk is yet to voice its position on Russia’s fake referendums in Ukraine, with only evasive comments from Makei.
If it does come out in support, then, just like Russia itself, it will consider any Ukrainian counter-offensive into these areas as an “attack on Russian territory”.
Lukashenka has previously said that in the event of external aggression against Russia, Belarus would enter the war to help its ally. According to Russia and Belarus’s joint military doctrine, any actions directed against either state will be perceived as an encroachment on the Union State (the diplomatic and economic treaty that binds the two countries).
But there are signs that pressure has been mounting on the Belarusian leader. On 26 September, Lukashenka and Putin met in the Russian city of Sochi. The meeting appears to have been largely dedicated to Ukraine.
For more than two days, neither Belaurusian state media nor Lukashenka’s press office said a word about the course of the negotiations or even the whereabouts of the Belarusian leader.
Then, suddenly, Lukashenka appeared in Abkhazia (a Russia-backed breakaway region in Georgia that is not internationally recognised), an act that looks like a forced demonstration of his loyalty to his ‘big brother’ in the Kremlin.
Similarly, during a security meeting last week, Lukashenka admitted for the first time that Belarus was participating in Russia’s so-called “special military operation in Ukraine” – but without giving any details. However, he stressed that “we do not kill anyone” and “we do not send our military anywhere.”
The role of Belarus in the war, he said, boils down to ensuring that no one shoots Russia “in the back”.
What mobilisation might mean
Lukashenka and his generals have emphasised that mobilisation in Russia does not mean that mobilisation will also be announced in Belarus.
However, at last week’s security meeting, the president talked about the problems the Russian authorities have faced with mobilisation – and why this must not happen in Belarus. As a result, he ordered a check on the system for mobilising military personnel.
“We need to carefully call people in their neighbourhoods, see how many of them there are and check all our lists and documents in the military registration and enlistment offices,” Lukashenka said.
The Belarusian authorities do not hide the fact that certain mobilisation measures are already under way. For example, at the end of September, the Ministry of Defence announced a “sudden check of combat and mobilisation readiness” at a large air base in Machulishchi. That order also involved a call-up of reservists and the removal of military equipment from storage. Each time this happens, the Belarusian authorities emphasise that these are “planned events”.
Putin’s mobilisation may affect Belarus in other ways. According to Ukraine’s deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar, the Kremlin is allegedly planning to place 20,000 newly mobilised Russian military personnel in Belarus.
Lukashenka at a crossroads
On 29 September, Pavel Latushka said that Lukashenka had allegedly agreed to receive 120,000 Russian troops between November 2022 and February 2023, and 100,000 Belarusians would allegedly be called up. “Lukashenka is preparing for a full-scale war,” he claimed.
In Ukraine, these radical forecasts were perceived rather sceptically. Representatives of the Ukrainian authorities are convinced that Putin is really trying to get Lukashenka to enter the war. However, Kyiv has repeatedly expressed doubts that Lukashenka will actually go for it.
The Ukrainian authorities have been wrong in the past when assessing the intentions of the Lukashenka regime. Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, admitted that Kyiv was convinced there would be no invasion from Belarus – just two days before it happened.
On the evening of 8 October, Ukraine’s ambassador to Belarus was summoned to the Belarusian foreign ministry, where he was handed a diplomatic note: it stated that Ukraine was allegedly planning a strike against Belarusian territory. Kyiv denied these accusations and stated that the delivery of a diplomatic note could be part of the Russian plan to draw Belarus into the conflict.
On 10 October, Lukashenka announced that he and Putin had agreed on the deployment and formation of a regional group of Russian and Belarusian troops.
“Of course, the Ukrainians absolutely do not need this,” Lukashenka said. “Well, why else would they open a second front on our southern borders, and their northern ones? Well, why? This is crazy from a military point of view. Nevertheless, the process has begun.”
Belarus and Russia’s joint regional group was created back in 1999: it includes the Belarusian army in full strength and some units of the Russian armed forces (until 2022, for example, it included Russia’s first tank army, whose headquarters was in Smolensk). With that in mind, it remains unclear what exactly is meant by ‘deployment’ and ‘formation’.
One thing is clear: it is planned to redeploy significant Russian forces to Belarus again. Lukashenka has already given the order to receive and deploy “more than one thousand” Russian military personnel.
None of this yet means that Lukashenka will definitely join Russia’s war. Sociological studies show that even the overwhelming majority of people who support Lukashenka’s dictatorship will not support the Belarusian military joining the war against Ukraine. Troops operating in a ‘domestic’ atmosphere are potentially unreliable, and Lukashenka is well aware of this.
Even a return to the situation in February-March, when the Russian army used Belarus as a staging area for a ground operation against Ukraine, is now fraught with serious consequences. At the beginning of the war, Ukraine’s leaders had neither the strength nor the determination to launch counterattacks on Belarusian territory. Today, they seem to have both.
“I think that we will not tolerate [attacks from Belarusian territory] this time,” warned Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych. Oleksiy Danilov emphasised the same point – which suggests there is a very real threat that Belarus will become an arena of hostilities.
It’s extremely difficult for Lukashenka to maintain the status quo. No doubt, he will continue to tell Putin that Belarus joining the war is pointless – it would not change anything at the front; it could provoke an anti-government revolution in Belarus and then, as he himself puts it, armed forces of a government less well disposed to Russia would be based near Russia’s western border.
Yet this argument is no longer convincing; with annexation and mobilisation, Putin has gone all-out against Ukraine. The threat of the Belarusian regime collapsing is no longer the biggest risk for the Kremlin. If Putin has decided on an all-out war, he is unlikely to be satisfied with passive support from his ally – an ally that is entirely dependent on Russia support.
Moreover, a complete withdrawal from Putin’s “special operation” could demoralise Lukashenka’s law enforcement apparatus, his only remaining constituency for support in the country.
That said, Lukashenka is well aware that a Russian defeat is not in his interests. If military defeat leads to a serious weakening or even the collapse of the Putin system, then his own regime will be left face to face with both the West and the Belarusian people.
As Lukashenka admitted immediately after the start of the Russian invasion in February: “Imagine that there is no Russia tomorrow – it has been defeated, collapsed, and so on. Who will be drawn into this spiral? We’d disappear immediately.”
Now Lukashenka finds himself in a situation where any move will worsen his position. The evidence suggests the Belarusian leader believes that supporting the Kremlin’s escalation against Ukraine is a better option than an open conflict with Putin.