Analysts have closely followed whether Belarus, a loyal Kremlin ally, will invade its neighbor. But even though the Belarusian president toes the Kremlin line, he is unlikely to want to get in over his head in Ukraine.
KYIV — For several months, Belarusian troops have been conducting regular training exercises, particularly in the regions bordering Ukraine. Combined with the specific statements by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, this raises logical fears about the direct involvement of the Belarusian army in the war.
In late May, Lukashenko once again held hours of talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia. During the public part of the meeting, he supported the Kremlin's narrative of Poland's plans to seize western Ukraine. Summing up the Ukrainian issue, he said: "Our cause is right and sooner or later we will win anyway."
A Putin ultimatum
Citing sources, Pavel Latushko, a former diplomat and one of the Belarusian opposition leaders, reports that Lukashenko returned from Sochi “with a face like thunder” because he may have received an ultimatum from Putin about involving Belarus in aggression against Ukraine.
A new direction has appeared.
It is impossible to say now if there was such an ultimatum. Lukashenko himself claims that Putin never asked him to invade Ukraine. However, three days after the talks in Sochi, for the first time since the beginning of the war, he dressed in military uniform and held a meeting at the Ministry of Defense. During this meeting, he ordered the creation of a separate operational command in the Ukrainian direction.
“Unfortunately, a new direction has appeared, or as we normally say, a new front," Lukashenko emphasized. "We have to pay attention to this.”
After a while, Lukashenko suggested that it would be necessary to fight for western Ukraine to prevent its seizure by the Poles. During a visit to the Belshina tire plant in Belarus on June 17, he even talked about a strike on Kyiv, "if they hit Mozyr [a city close to the Ukrainian border]."
Why Minsk is not ready
Lukashenko’s actions and statements in May and June can be seen as absolutely ambivalent. On one hand, this may indicate real preparations for war, and on the other hand, this may be a mere imitation to divert Kyiv's attention and prove his loyalty to the Kremlin.
Only talks about creating a southern operational command mean little, because troops are yet to be found for it. According to the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, this initiative involves an increase in the armed forces of Belarus from 45,000 to 80,000, but such an ambitious military reform seems unrealistic in the current conditions. There are neither material nor human resources for this (according to the military, the country is at the very bottom of “the demographic pit”).
The idea of creating a "people's militia" in general looks like ordinary populism. It is hard to believe that the Lukashenko regime will hand over weapons to people who have been subjected to unprecedented violence and repression by the regime for the past two years.
All reports of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine emphasize that there are no signs of creating an offensive group in Belarus yet. The independent monitoring group “Belarusian Guyun” came to the same conclusion. However, Ukraine still has to react to what is happening and strengthen the border with Belarus.
According to the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) Oleksiy Danilov, President Volodymyr Zelensky held a meeting on June 15 to discuss a possible invasion by Belarus. As a result, it was decided to check the readiness of four regions for such challenges. At the same time, Danilov once again noted that "Belarus does not have enough forces and means to conduct an offensive similar to the one that took place on Feb. 24."
Military hardware takes part in the Allied Resolve 2022 joint military drills held by Belarusian and Russian troops at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground.
Anti-war sentiment at home
Anti-war sentiment in Belarus clearly dominates. A poll by Chatham House among the urban population shows that only 3% of Belarusians are ready to support the participation of the Belarusian army in the war against Ukraine. A study by sociologist Andriy Vardamatsky, which also covered rural residents, showed a higher level of approval — up to 11%. Meanwhile, 85-86% are unequivocally against. That is, even the vast majority of supporters of the dictatorship (and, according to some polls, they may be up to 27%) will not support the participation of the Belarusian army in the war. Armed forces operating in such conditions are unreliable.
Lukashenko cannot fail to understand this. He also understands that direct participation in the war will inevitably lead to increased resistance within the country in various forms. There is a striking example: in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a wave of railway sabotage swept across Belarus.
There are obvious deterrents, but also caveats.
The press called it a new "rail war." The purpose of the actions is to prevent the movement of the aggressor's military equipment through Belarus. According to official data alone, more than 80 railway sabotages were recorded in Belarus between February and early April, although the security forces used firearms and even threatened to kill. The non-violent protest movement frightened the government so much that it hastily passed a law expanding the scope of the death penalty in Belarus.
Strong anti-war sentiment and a possible catastrophic electoral situation are obvious deterrents to the Lukashenko regime. The first serious losses at the front could lead to military riots and revolution. So, Lukashenko is probably quite sincere in saying his main task is "not to get in over his head with the Ukrainian conflict." But there are also caveats
Russia needs Belarus
At the same time, the threat of a complete destabilization of the situation in Belarus is exactly the argument that Lukashenko can successfully use in negotiations with Putin. After all, the collapse of the Lukashenko regime will mean that Russia has not only lost its only ally, but, in fact, has received a second front itself. The fall of the dictatorship will force the Kremlin to make a choice: either leave Belarus or occupy it completely.
In the first case, this will mean a great geopolitical defeat for Putin, and in the second case, this will dissipate the forces he needs against Ukraine.
The Belarusian army is unable to provide a radical change in the conflict, and the potential costs for the Kremlin may be prohibitive. However, if Putin really decides to take a risk and demands Lukashenko point-blank, the latter is unlikely to be able to ignore such an ultimatum given his absolute dependence on his eastern neighbor.