As the war in Donbas is bogged down, the most likely major new gambit in Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine would be to get military support from his ally in Minsk, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. How would that actually go down?
This article was updated Oct. 12 at 1:00 p.m EST
What will Lukashenko do? It’s a high-stakes corollary to the even higher stakes "what-will-Putin-do" question that has been weighing on the world since the beginning of the year.
Few doubt that the role of Belarus and its leader Alexander Lukashenko — the 68-year-old strongman who's ruled Belarus since 1994 — is absolutely crucial to the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Will he invade? Will he bide his time? Will he do whatever Putin tells him to do?
Lukashenko's announcement Monday that he would deploy his troops alongside Russian forces near Ukraine shows that it is indeed increasingly likely that Belarus will enter the war.
Having cited the Saturday bombing of the Kerch bridge in Crimea, and the risk of a similar such attack on his country, Lukashenko is now set to welcome Russian forces alongside his near the border with Ukraine.
How would Belarus enter the war?
What would happen if Lukashenko moves past all the military training and posturing of the past four months — and attacks Ukraine? We can begin to construct a plausible answer by looking at the key factors:The capital of Belarus, Minsk, is only 500 kilometers from Kyiv, while the border itself is less than 160 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital. On the Belarusian border, there are not only Belarusian troops but also temporary Russian air bases. Also, the Belarusian border passes very close to other major cities of Ukraine: Chernihiv, Lutsk, and Rivne.
In terms of geography, it is from Belarus that an attack on Kyiv and central Ukraine is more dangerous also because the Chernobyl, Rivne, and Kremenchuk nuclear power plants are located there.
Also, the border between Belarus and Ukraine is largely comprised of forests and steppes, the roads through which are now being actively mined by the Ukrainian army in case of an infantry attack.
The "Belorusskiy gaiun" Telegram channel, which regularly monitors troop movements on Belarus’ territory, notes that the risk of an attack on Ukraine will remain for at least the next three months.
"The restriction zone for flights of all types of civil aircraft in southern Belarus has been extended until Oct. 7, 2022. The ban on flights over southern Belarus was imposed on Feb. 24, 2022, with the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is from the south of Belarus that missiles are launched over the territory of Ukraine,” reports the Telegram channel.
“Since the beginning of the war, at least 689 warheads have been launched from the territory of Belarus in Ukrainian cities. Thus, the threat of missile attacks on the territory of Ukraine from the airspace of Belarus remains for at least another three months."
How strong is the Belarus army?
The Belarusian army is not particularly well-staffed and has not taken part in any military action since its independence at the end of the Cold War. Even if it fails to capture Kyiv or other major cities, its presence in the conflict would force some of the Ukrainian troops needed in the south and east of the country to redeploy. Belarus’ firepower could also deliver heavy blows to civilians and critical infrastructure.
The risk of an attack on Ukraine will remain for at least the next three months.
The Minsk-based newspaper Vot Tak writes that the strength of the Belarusian army is about 65,000 people, of whom only 45,000 are servicemen, and the remaining 20,000 are civilian personnel. We can add 12,000 soldiers of the Internal Troops to this number.
It's important to note that the internal troops are loyal to Lukashenko, and were involved in dispersing rallies in 2020 after the longstanding president rigged the results of the national election. These are the same troops that brutally dispersed peaceful, unarmed protesters. Hundreds of people were thrown into police vans, beaten, and raped.
Lukashenko's senior officers are also loyal, built on a Soviet mentality and are largely committed to the idea of unification of the former Soviet republics.
Vot Tak writes that during the 28 years of his rule, Lukashenko built up an array of armed forces and intelligence operations of the country as a separate caste. During the 2020 suppression of civil protests, not only the ex KGB special forces, riot police, and Interior Ministry troops, but also separate airborne assault brigades showed their loyalty to the regime and cruelty to their own people in full measure.
At the same time, the Belarusian army does not have many armored vehicles: several hundred T-72 tanks of various modifications, of which only 20 are well equipped and modern. There are 30 MiG-29 fighters and 22 Su-25 attack aircraft, four Su-30SMs, and another 20 Su-27 fighters in storage and unlikely to be combat-ready at the moment.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in St Petersburg
Will Belarusians resist an invasion?
There is a widespread belief among Ukrainians that the Belarusian army will not go against Ukraine. And if such an order is given, it will turn against Lukashenko himself. Knowing and fearing this, Lukashenko delays entering the war.
However, this opinion is based on a genuinely friendly relationship between the two nations, including the experience of the support that the Belarusians showed for the Ukrainians during the revolutions of 2004 and 2014, and on the general unwillingness to live under the leadership of the Kremlin. It’s notable that many Belarusians chose to flee to Ukraine seeking protection from Lukashenko's regime, as well as actively helping Ukrainian refugees during this war.
However, the people and the army in Belarus are not united, as demonstrated by the rallies in 2020. There is little the Belarusians themselves can do if the army is ordered to attack.
Still there is another factor traced back to history. Belarus was known for one very important element from World War II, which played a significant role in the German army's failure in the war against the USSR: widespread and well-trained underground resistance. Let's just say that the Belarusians may not be the most militant nation, but they are talented saboteurs. Since the beginning of the war, sabotage groups of Belarusians have mined the railroad tracks, preventing trains carrying ammunition from crossing to support the advancing Russian army.
The people and the army in Belarus are not united.
From sources that we cannot name, we know that individual Belarusian military, working incognito, are training Ukrainian soldiers at bases in Poland.
Since early 2022, the Belarusian regiment named after Kastus Kalinovsky, the 19th-century Belarusian writer and revolutionary, has been fighting on the side of Ukraine. It took an active part in the defense of Kyiv during the first days of the war.
Whether pockets of resistance turn into a mass movement is one more question we may find out in the coming weeks and months. Russians failed to muster the protest that would have stopped Putin's regime.
Perhaps the fear of repression and the experience of clashing with the Special Forces will also prevent the Belarusians from significantly rebelling against the regime if Lukashenko decides to go to full-scale war. In this case, Ukraine will have to wage a defensive war on two fronts.
What about the rest of the world?
The escalation of the war has been on possibility since the invasion began. That could happen in multiple ways, in terms of who is involved, where the fighting takes place and even the types of weapons used.
Scenarios of Russia invading another regional neighbor, such as Poland or Moldova, come with the risk that it could quickly spark a wider war with the West.
That is less likely if Belarus invades Ukraine. For Washington and London and Brussels, it's bad, but essentially more of the same. Indeed, Lukashenko’s ties (and resemblance) to Putin may be his greatest insurance policy. Or his greatest risk.
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