Putin’s sway over Belarus president could influence Kremlin’s calculus on Ukraine
The Washington Post February 2, 2022
When Russia last invaded Ukraine, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko cast himself as a neutral mediator.
He refrained from recognizing Crimea as Russian territory, declined to join Moscow in a trade war against the West and convened the warring parties in Minsk to broker peace accords that bear the Belarusian capital's name.
But eight years later, as Russia threatens a new war with Ukraine, Lukashenko is a new man - and far more beholden to the Kremlin. On Friday, he took the stage in Minsk, where he vowed to go to war for Moscow, should Russia be attacked, and accused the West of trying to "drown" Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood in blood.
"No matter what anyone else wants, we will bring our Ukraine back into the fold of Slavism," Lukashenko said in his annual address to the nation and parliament, prompting an outburst of applause. "We are bound to do it."
The change in Lukashenko's posture comes after the former collective farm boss nearly lost his grip on power in 2020. Mass protests erupted across Belarus in response to a presidential election widely decried as fraudulent, posing the biggest threat to Lukashenko's rule since he became president of the former Soviet republic in 1994.
Lukashenko turned to the Kremlin for a political lifeline and led a brutal political crackdown at home. The moves staved off the threat to his power but left him deeply reliant on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now, analysts say, he is all but compelled to follow Putin's lead on Ukraine - whatever that may be.
"He has been put into a corner," said David Marples, a historian who studies Belarus at the University of Alberta in Canada. "Whatever Putin wants now, Lukashenko says, 'Yes.' "
Officials in Minsk and at the Belarusian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
The new reality has significant implications for a military conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Belarus shares a 674-mile border with Ukraine and abuts three NATO states - Poland, Latvia and Lithuania - that are among Kyiv's staunchest backers. Belarusian territory is also extremely close to Kyiv. The nearest border crossing into Belarus is a 2.5-hour drive north from Ukraine's capital through Chernobyl.
That proximity has never felt more menacing for those fearing an outbreak of war in Ukraine. Russian troops, missiles and tanks for two weeks have been flowing into Belarus by train for the second phase of joint military exercises between Russia and Belarus set to run from Feb. 10 to 20.
On Monday, the State Department ordered family members of officials at the U.S. Embassy in Belarus to leave the country, citing an "unusual and concerning Russian military buildup" along the country's border with Ukraine. U.S. officials have said there are indications Russia plans to expand its troop presence to 30,000 along that border by early this month.
Military analysts worry that the exercises, which fall outside the normal biennial schedule for such mass maneuvers, could amount to what Russians call a maskirovka - or a military deception that positions Russian forces for an invasion under the cover of war games.
"By firmly securing Belarus in Russia's orbit, Moscow changed the security landscape, and this in turn has now allowed it to use Belarusian territory as a staging ground for a potentially large military operation against Ukraine," said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at the Virginia-based research group CNA.
If Russia decides to mount an invasion of Ukraine, Belarus could be used to place Kyiv at risk, maintain air dominance and conduct strikes into Ukrainian territory, said Mathieu Boulègue, a research fellow in the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House in London.
Viktor Muzhenko, chief of the Ukrainian military's General Staff from 2014 to 2019, recalled visiting Belarus in 2018 with concerns that Minsk was considering creating a southern command in its territory that would threaten Ukraine. Lukashenko personally promised him there would be no attack on Ukraine from Belarusian territory, Muzhenko said in an interview.
Now Muzhenko worries that an attack originating from Belarus is a feasible scenario under the guise of the exercises. He said that the population near the border north of Kyiv is largely gone because of the Chernobyl disaster and that highway and railway connections would make logistics easy for the Russian military.
"Certain conditions - the terrain and the nature of its use - make it possible to assume action could be taken in the direction of Kyiv from Belarus," Muzhenko said, noting that the Russian military had already moved S-400 air defenses and Iskander missiles to the area.
Any participation in a war between Russia and Ukraine is likely to be deeply unpopular in Belarus and politically perilous for Lukashenko. But with limited independence remaining, he may have little say in the matter.
"If we come to full-scale conflict between Russia and Ukraine, where there will be kinetic fighting with exchange of artillery and missiles, I don't think Lukashenko will have much choice," said Artyom Shraibman, a Belarusian political analyst and nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Putin will use the weapons systems and maybe potentially the troops accumulating in Belarus [at] his discretion - and Lukashenko will simply be informed, 'This is how it is going to be.' "
The Kremlin has denied any intention to invade Ukraine, accusing the United States of feeding alarmism about the more than 100,000 troops Moscow has built up around Ukraine. Lukashenko, in his annual address, said Belarus wouldn't create any problems for its neighbors and decried the possibility of a new war in the region.
"There will be no victory in such a war. Everyone will lose!" Lukashenko said. "Therefore, we do not want war. We have fought enough. Our people lost millions in past wars. We want to live and work in peace."
In response to a question after the speech, Lukashenko said that unless necessary, he wouldn't send Belarusian soldiers to fight another people on foreign soil.
"You mentioned Ukraine. God forbid we have to fight against this people, where it's possible my own great-great-grandfathers' roots are hidden. No way," said Lukashenko. "I am a peaceful person and will give no such orders. And I hope - today I'm nearly certain - we will not fight."
During Russia's interventions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, Lukashenko sought to use the crises as moments of opportunity to make inroads with the West.
The European Union suspended sanctions on Belarus in the months after Russia invaded Georgia, hoping to pull Minsk down a European path, but restored them two years later after Lukashenko cracked down around the 2010 presidential election.
Lukashenko ran a similar play in 2014 when Russia invaded Ukraine, creating a thaw that once again would lead the West to lift sanctions.
In early 2020, Lukashenko welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Minsk, the first time a secretary of state had visited the country in 26 years.
But the rapprochement was short-lived. As a presidential election loomed, authorities in Belarus began arresting Lukashenko's opponents. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya entered the race after her husband's arrest and later led mass protests against the official August 2020 election result, denounced in the West as rigged.
Tikhanovskaya fled the country, as Lukashenko launched a wave of repression against opposition politicians, journalists and civil society groups, which Human Rights Watch said has left at least 862 people behind bars on politically motivated charges. The United States and the European Union no longer recognize Lukashenko as the country's legitimate president and have applied sanctions.
Those sanctions were strengthened last year after Lukashenko's government used a fake bomb threat to force a Ryanair flight traveling from Greece to Lithuania into an emergency landing in Minsk, allowing Belarusian authorities to arrest an opposition journalist and his girlfriend on board.
Franak Viacorka, an adviser to Tikhanovskaya who also has fled the country, expressed concern that the Russian forces and weapons flowing into Belarus for the exercises could remain there in a de facto occupation.
"We want to make sure that these troops will not stay and that the solution to the Ukrainian-Russian crisis will not come with a Belarusian cost," Viacorka said. "The reason why Belarus does not oppose a possible occupation is only because voices are suppressed within the country."
Among the consequences of the political changes in Belarus has been a rupture between Belarus and Ukraine. Lukashenko, who now describes Crimea as Russian territory, has assailed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and accused Ukraine of aiding a plot against him.
"I will do everything so that Ukraine becomes ours," Lukashenko said. "She is our Ukraine. Those are our people. This isn't emotion but my firm conviction."