Nuclear Card And Firing Squads: Lukashenko's Long Game To Retain Power
A few weeks after an explosion at a military field in Belarus, Vladimir Putin announced plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. There is a connection, even if Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko is walking a tight rope of domestic control and keeping Putin satisfied.
Back on the afternoon of February 26, local Belarus media reported explosions at the military airfield in Machulishchy, near Minsk, and increased activity of military services. Soon after, the BYPOL association, created by former security forces to fight the regime of Alexander Lukashenko,, announced that Belarusian partisans had used drones to attack a Russian A-50U long-range radar detection aircraft.
Neither Minsk nor Moscow acknowledged that such a valuable aircraft had been disabled. However, a few days later, the A-50U left the territory of Belarus for repairs.
The day after the explosions, Lukashenko convened a meeting of the security forces. He looked agitated, demanding "the strictest discipline" and spoke vaguely about some "internal events" and attempts to "stir up" the situation in Belarus. The Belarusian authorities publicly acknowledged the sabotage only on March 7.
That same day, Lukashenko accused the Ukrainian special services of organizing the terrorist attack in Machulishchy. "Well, the challenge has been met," he declared, before quickly clarifying that he did not intend to use the incident to draw Belarus into war. "If you think that throwing this challenge will drag us into a war that is already going on all over Europe, you are mistaken."
Kyiv reacted to the statements with restraint. National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov said, "We are ready for any situation development."
Three days later, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense published an alarming message: soon, Moscow plans to organize large-scale provocations on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border to give Belarus a reason to enter the war. The Russian human rights project Gulagu.net has issued similar warnings: the FSB has allegedly already sent a group of mercenaries to Belarus for terrorist attacks on behalf of the Armed Forces.
No sabotage or terrorist attacks occurred after that. However, Lukashenko's emotional reaction to the sabotage in Machulishchy is easy to understand. On the one hand, it's about the government's security: if a military airfield near Minsk can be attacked, what's to stop the state's top officials from being the next target?
Lukashenko's position in relations with the Kremlin is even more vulnerable.
On the other, what happened has made Lukashenko's position in relations with the Kremlin even more vulnerable. He has repeatedly stated that Belarus' role in the current conflict is to prevent "our Russian brothers from stabbing us in the back." In other words, Lukashenko has taken on the responsibility of securing the rear and communications of Putin's army. Now the Kremlin has reason to accuse him of failing to do so.
At the same time, it is difficult to say if Lukashenko believes that Ukrainian special services were behind the events in Machulishchy. It is an old habit of the regime to attribute any act of resistance to the interference of external forces. However, it is much more important that no one denies the participation of Belarusians in operation.
Lukashenko spoke at length about Ukraine sending a saboteur to Belarus, but at the same time said that more than 20 "accomplices" in the Machulishchy attack had been detained. It turns out that one single Ukrainian agent accounted for about 20 local underground fighters in this operation.
According to media reports, the investigation also led to the arrest of a former Deputy Minister of Communications and now Assistant Chairman of the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission, Dmitry Shedko. FSB officers detained him in Moscow and then taken to the KGB detention center in Minsk. Shedko allegedly could have been connected to one of the suspects. He was later released.
"This is a lesson for us," Lukashenko emphasized, speaking about the events in Machulishchy. "They hid and sat. They are sitting and waiting for something. It will be like in 1941, and there is nothing to hide: when the Nazis came here, there were these cells and accomplices. And then they put an armband on their arm, a Schmeiser on their shoulder, and acted together with these fascists... We will find them all. We will clean them out of our society."
On March 7, Lukashenko spoke directly about the fact that mass repression failed to completely suppress the will of Belarusians to resist: "They have not learned anything in these two and a half years." Therefore, an order was given to carry out "the most severe cleansing."
Raids began throughout Belarus: security forces are allegedly looking for "hidden cells of extremists and their accomplices." In addition, the special services are "working out" relatives and friends of Belarusian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko
Threats and treason
The fact that Lukashenko's anger eventually turned on the Belarusians themselves does not mean that military escalation is now completely ruled out. In parallel with the new wave of persecution of internal enemies, the legislation is being adapted in case of war with external enemies.
On March 9, Lukashenko signed "firing squad" amendments to the criminal code: now officials and military personnel will face the death penalty for "treason." Kyiv drew attention to this draft law in December 2022: introducing the death penalty for treason could be evidence of Belarus' preparations to enter a war against Ukraine. The conclusion is quite logical. There has been a lot of skepticism about the reliability of the Belarusian army in wartime. However, the command now has a powerful deterrent: the ability to threaten soldiers, including those recently mobilized, with execution.
The army will be busy at the front, and resources for fighting the protests will be reduced.
The amendments approved by Lukashenko are not limited to this. The new law introduces criminal liability for "discrediting the armed forces, other troops and military formations, and paramilitary organizations." In other words, it is de facto a copy of the Russian law on fake news, which the Kremlin uses to persecute opponents of the war.
In addition, the Security Council has preliminarily approved a draft law on the people's militia to help maintain public order where the police are short-staffed. The 2020 protests in Belarus were of such a scale that everyone was deployed to suppress them: police, internal troops, KGB, armed forces, and even border guards.
However, during the war, the army and special forces will be busy at the front, and resources for fighting the protests will be reduced. For such a critical situation — war and mass protests — militias loyal to the regime will be needed, ready to defend the government with arms in hand. Defense Minister Viktor Khrenin claims that the militia members could reach 100-150 thousand if necessary.
All this looks like a large package of preventive measures in case of war. Lukashenko still needs to decide to send his troops to Ukraine or is about to do so. He will continue to try to evade it in every way possible. However, these actions indicate that Minsk considers participation in a military confrontation a real scenario for which it should prepare.
Putin's decision to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus does not change anything. The parties have been preparing for this step for a long time. In November 2021, Lukashenko publicly stated that he intended to offer Russia to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus. Then he prudently removed the clause on the neutral and non-nuclear status of the state from the Constitution.
And at the end of 2022, Russia and Belarus had agreed to train crews capable of flying aircraft with "specific munitions." The fact that the Kremlin has decided to put this trump card on the table indicates that Russia has no other way to increase pressure on Ukraine and its allies.
As for Lukashenko, deploying the nuclear fuel cycle in Belarus is only to his advantage: it is a chance to demonstrate his loyalty to the Kremlin, to give confidence to the security forces and oligarchs, and, ultimately, to maintain the status quo.
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