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Belarus president, Alexandr Lukashenko, shakes hands with Russian president, Vladimir Putin
Allies? Or client and patron: Belarus president, Alexandr Lukashenko, and Russian president, Vladimir Putin, after Kremlin talks in February 2022. EPA-EFE/Sergey Guneev/Sputnik/Kremlin pool

Ukraine: the complex calculations that will decide whether Belarus enters the conflict on Russia’s side

For several days, there have been reports about Belarus committing troops to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Fears are growing that a “false-flag” operation inside Belarus could be the pretext for the country attacking Ukraine.

Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko, in an interview with TBS Television Japan, complained about constant Ukrainian provocations to which his country would eventually “need to respond”. The departure of the Belarusian ambassador from Ukraine is yet another ominous sign of potential escalation.

In addition, Russia’s advance in Ukraine continues to stall. There has been no significant progress around Kyiv for several days. And other major population centres, including Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Sumy in the north remain in Ukrainian hands, despite Russia’s efforts to occupy them.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has “assessed that for the first time … the Russians may be slightly below a 90% level of … the available combat power … they assembled in Belarus and in the western part of their country prior to the invasion”.

The static nature of operations in northern Ukraine is likely also an indication of Russia “conducting a period of reorganisation before resuming large-scale offensive operations”, according to a briefing by the UK’s Ministry of Defence. With Russia struggling to pull in combat-ready troops from among its own forces, part of this reorganisation could be the mobilisation of additional units. This could include personnel from Belarus.

They would either join ongoing operations, for example around Kyiv, or would be used to bolster Russian efforts to encircle Ukrainian forces in the east through a simultaneous push south from Kharkiv and north from Mariupol. Another possible use of Belarusian forces would be to expand the theatre of operations further to the west in an attempt to disrupt Ukrainian supply lines.

Russian operational needs to one side, what is the likelihood of Belarus joining the war as another belligerent party on Russia’s side? Here we need to consider several factors.

A hard choice for Lukashenko

First, Lukashenko and his regime have very limited autonomy in their decision making. The failure of Russian troops to withdraw from Belarus when the “Allied Resolve 2022” joint exercises were “extended” in February due to the allegedly worsening situation in Donbas made it clear that Putin was calling all the shots in Belarus.

A helicopter flies above military vehicles in joint exercises between Russia and Belarus, February 2022.
‘Allied Resolve’ joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus, February 2022. Henadz Zhinkov/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

This puts Lukashenko into a precarious position. Sending Belarusian troops to fight against Ukraine will make him more unpopular in Belarus – despite the fact that it won’t be his decision but that of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. It could also trigger a level of protest in Belarus not seen since the contested presidential elections of August 9 2020.

In addition, enthusiasm among the Belarusian armed forces, who have no real combat experience, for war against Ukraine appears limited. This includes those retired military staff, who would once have gladly served Moscow in exchange for a Russian salary and pension, but are now rethinking their position.

The risk of potentially losing the support of the main guarantors of his regime means that Lukashenko has to tread a careful line between his dependence on Russia and his own survival instincts. He has emphasised that Belarus has tried to mediate in the war and has so far successfully resisted Ukrainian and western efforts to drag his country into the conflict.

At the same time, Lukashenko has tried to play his “China card”, stressing in a meeting with the Chinese ambassador, Xie Xiaoyong, that relations between their two countries are the main priority for Belarusian foreign and economic policy. This must be seen as an attempt to “balance” Russian influence by emphasising the longstanding economic relations between Belarus and China.

This includes US$6 billion (£4.5 billion) of Chinese investments in Belarusian infrastructure as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Given China’s repeated appeal for de-escalation, Lukashenko might also be hoping that Beijing will use its influence in Moscow to keep Minsk out of the war.

Putin’s calculation

So the choice for Putin is perhaps also not as straightforward as might be assumed. For one, destabilising Belarus – an important ally and a key strategic outpost for Russia – would be detrimental to what Putin sees as his justified pushback against western encirclement.

In this sense, Kremlin priorities to retain control over Belarus and Lukashenko’s survival instincts may be relatively aligned and would mitigate against dragging Belarus into the war.

On the other hand, Putin’s aims of further upending the existing security order in Europe may also be served by creating more chaos at the border with the EU and Nato, while further undercutting Lukashenko’s ability to present himself domestically and internationally as independent from Moscow.

What’s more, Russia has allowed Belarus to postpone the repayment of loans for several years. This has, in effect, created offshore financial assets that might be better protected if Belarus were not dragged into the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine.

A choice for the west, too

Belarus has already incurred significant costs for Lukashenko’s support of Putin. Emigration, including among young men of military age, has increased since the start of the war. Parts of the IT sector, especially companies owned by foreign investors, have relocated Belarusian employees to other countries as well.

As western sanctions expand, the economic situation in Belarus keeps deteriorating. Lukashenko is unlikely to go down without a fight, and Putin will not simply relinquish control of Belarus. But Russia’s declining ability to prop up Lukashenko’s regime also increases the chances for change in Belarus.

This is not a suggestion that the west should actively promote regime change in Belarus. But that – for all of Lukashenko’s and Putin’s constant reaffirmation of their alliance – differentiating between Minsk and Moscow and carefully calibrating policies towards both countries should be among the priorities for western policy makers.

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