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CWA # 927, 10 March 2023
In Russia’s ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine, apart from the two conflicting parties, other neighboring states, whether a member of NATO or not, are also involved. Belarus is a case of a non-NATO member supporting Russia in the ongoing conflict. Until 2021, Belarus had not recognized Crimea as a part of Russia, but in November 2021, it recognized Crimea as ‘de facto Russian’.
Belarus-Russia: A growing bonhomie
The relations between the Presidents of Belarus and Russia has been strengthening especially after the 2020 presidential election in Minsk. Back in 2020, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko showed certain openness towards the West, while maintaining proximity to Russia. But, the rigged elections of 2020 and the violent suppression of demonstrations was the turning point.
The closeness between Belarus and Russia has culminated in the form of active military exercises. One of the major exercise called "Union Shield 2023" was held in September 2022 and another one in January 2023. Russia using Belarus as the launching pad to attack Ukraine and the formation of a regional group of forces mostly consisting of Belarusian military personnel cements this alliance. Minsk justifies the regional group as a culmination of a treaty signed between two states in 1999.
Ukraine’s threat perception
Ukraine perceives this grouping as a reservoir of Russian troops to help Moscow against Kiev, as it opens another way to invade Ukraine. The threat is not only directed towards Ukraine, but also to the West. With the culmination of this 1999 treaty Poland’s border becomes exposed to Russian defense system that has the possibility of permanently getting stationed in the Belarusian-Russian border. In December 2022, President Lukashenko announced the start of the combat duty of Iskander-M (the short-range ballistic missile system capable of carrying nuclear weapons) and of the S-400 air defense missile system received from Russia. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed that Russia would provide training for Belarusian pilots of jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons (Belarus claims that its jets have been modified to be able to carry out this task, although Belarus does not have nuclear weapons). With the nuclear weapons getting mentioned time and again by the Russians the level of threat rhetoric for Ukraine and for the Central European countries security has increased.
Meanwhile, apart from using of Belarusian territory and Belarusian-Russian defense activities, Belarusian supply of military equipment to Russia such as tanks and ammunition, military training to the mobilized Russians, and health care, logistics and other services (e.g. accommodation, fuel-processing and military equipment repairs etc.) which are a part of the 1999 treaty, could also be seen as a tactic from Russia’s side to divert Kiev’s resources from the front line where it is most needed. Apart from diversion of Kiev’s resources, the direction of the offensive might also be shifted to the west of the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. If that happens then it would mean a cut off from the main logistical arteries of arms and military equipment supplies to Ukraine from its partner countries. The development in this western side has resulted in the increase in tension between Belarus and Ukraine. President Lukashenko last month said that Belarus would join the offensives against Ukraine if Ukraine’s army attacks the country first. Minsk has claimed that there has been a significant grouping of Ukrainian troops near Belarus’s border and warned that this posed a threat to its security. Kiev on the other hand is claiming about invasion from Belarus side. In this whole conundrum, Russia seems to have gained an upper hand strategically.
Belarus getting integrated to Russia, which is a part of the ‘Great Russia’ ambition of the Kremlin, appears to be a reality. The close relationship between the two can be traced back to the Tsarist Empire’s time. Unlike Ukraine, they both are a part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as well as of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In 2022, Belarus was part of CSTO operation in Kazakhstan.
What does it mean for Belarus?
Nevertheless, for Belarus the internal conditions and the sanctions imposed by the West since 2020 have complicated the situation for President Lukashenko. The country seems to be divided between the Kremlin and the West. President Lukashenko and some of the defense officials are in the Kremlin camp whereas the Belarusian opposition and the majority of the citizens favors the West. For President Lukashenko to get openly involved in the war would mean mobilization of the Belarusians themselves (the number of defense personnel is not high) which might not go down well. There is tension between the president and the citizens because of his repressive ways of ruling. Hence, ordering his army to join Russia’s in Ukraine could renew the Belarusian pro-democracy protests like in the lines of the Orange Revolution and Maidan Square. If his security forces are involved in fighting in Ukraine then they might not be able to maintain order inside Belarus.
The Ukraine war has put President Lukashenko in a three-pronged dilemma-firstly, the domestic conditions that could get out of control, getting completely integrated to Russia (which Belarus might not want to) and moving further away from the West. If Belarus becomes integrated in Russia, then the country’s future under President Lukashenko would be of the similar fate that of Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov. Belarus’s fate depends on President Lukashenko decisions.
At present, President Lukashenko’s interest lies in protecting his power within his own country and blaming the West and its propaganda for the domestic unrest. Russia’s win over Ukraine, with or without his involvement is important for his survival. An overall ‘genuine’ stability within Belarus seems a distant dream with the war still going on and President Lukashenko still being in power.
About the Author
Indrani Talukdar is a Faculty at Sushma Swaraj Institute of Foreign Service, Delhi.
NIAS Africa Team