Staunch Putin ally Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has recently tried to distance himself from an escalating war. But a series of events over the past month look set to drag him into Moscow's war with all the risks that entails for his small country.
This article was updated Oct. 10 at 2:30 p.m EST
The announcement Monday by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that he would deploy his troops alongside Russian forces near Ukraine is the clearest sign to date that Belarus is prepared to enter the war.
The 68-year-old strongman, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, cited the Saturday bombing of the Kerch bridge and the risk of a similar such attack on his country, for joining forces with Russia near the border.
"We have been preparing for this for decades. If necessary, we will respond," Lukashenko said.
Even before the bombing of Russia' bridge connecting its mainland to Crimea, the Kremlin's decision last month to hold pseudo-referendums in the occupied territories of Ukraine and the announcement of a partial mobilization had already already deprived Lukashenko of the opportunity to maintain the status quo.
It will no longer be possible to remain a passive participant in the Russian aggression: now it is necessary either to sharply take its distance from Russia or join a total war. And the news Monday of a joint operation with Moscow looks like Lukashenko's attempts to avoid joining the conflict have come to an end.
Minsk's reaction last month to the news about the pseudo-referendums and mobilization indicated a continued desire to distance itself from the upcoming escalation.
On the day of announcement of the Russian mobilization, in Moscow there was a meeting between the Secretary of the Security Council of Belarus, Alexander Volfovich, and the Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev. The main topic, obviously, was the war and “tension” on the borders of both Belarus and Russia.
But no concrete decisions were announced, and any hints of a possible mobilization in Belarus were rejected at that time. “Mobilization is not about us, the people of Belarus and the country are already mobilized,” Volfovich assured.
Lukashenko himself spoke on this topic only on September 24, but also quite ambiguously. “There will be no mobilization. We are not going to mobilize," he said. "This is a lie.”
At the same time, he did not comment on the mobilization in Russia and the “referendums” in the occupied territories.
Belarus tanks taking part in a competition in Moscow
A strongman's balancing act
Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, in an interview with France 24, did have to comment on the “referendums”, but his answer was as evasive as possible. “We will study the situation and make decisions in accordance with our national interests, and not the interests of any other country,” he said.
Minsk’s desire to distance itself and keep silent seemed quite understandable. The escalation unleashed by Putin puts Belarus at risk of direct entry into the war. If the Lukashenko regime recognizes pseudo-referendums, then it should consider any offensive by the Armed Forces of Ukraine in these areas as an attack on Russian territory, and therefore, on the Union State, which consists of Belarus and Russia. In this case, the obligations under the bilateral agreements between Moscow and Minsk come into force.
The military doctrine of the Union State provides that Belarus and the Russian Federation “consider any actions with the use of military force directed against any of the states as an encroachment on the Union State and will take appropriate retaliatory measures using any forces and means at their disposal.” Even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Lukashenko promised that in the event of an attack on the territory of Russia, the Belarusian army would enter the war.
Of course, if desired, one can disregard one's own promises (not for the first time) and even international agreements. But in the current situation, it will be simply impossible to do so without a direct conflict with the Kremlin. If Putin does not get Lukashenko's full support vis-a-vis the war and annexation, such a move could be perceived as a treason.
Meanwhile, it was precisely at the time of the impending escalation that official Minsk stepped up its attempts to resume dialogue with the West.
In early September, Lukashenko announced a large-scale amnesty, which was supposed to affect, in particular, political prisoners. The complete release of political prisoners (there are currently more than 1,330 of them in Belarus) and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Belarus are two key demands of the West to the Lukashenko regime. So, Lukashenko decided to tackle one of these issues.
Although the amnesty law has not yet been adopted, Lukashenko has pardoned several political prisoners, in particular, the well-known journalist of Radio Liberty Oleg Gruzdilovich. According to unofficial information, Gruzdilovich's release was the result of secret negotiations between Minsk and Washington. The pardon itself took place practically in secret mode: the decree was not published, and the state media did not report anything about this “act of humanism”.
Could Belarus make a deal with the West?
Meanwhile, in New York, Foreign Minister Makei held at least 10 behind-the-scenes meetings with Western diplomats on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Makei did not tell journalists about the specific content of the talks, but at the same time expressed confidence that these meetings would be fruitful. “There are very good, concrete positive agreements regarding the future prospects,” he emphasized.
According to Franak Viačorka, senior adviser to opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the head of Lukashenko's Foreign Ministry suggested that the West "turn the page" during these meetings. Makei hinted that now it is necessary to save Lukashenko from Russia. He asked to lift sanctions on the potash industry and promised to gradually release political prisoners. He also offered Belarus's services as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia.
Putin seems to be firmly determined to put pressure on Lukashenko
One of the leaders of the democratic opposition, Pavel Latushko, claims that Lukashenko is now bargaining with the West for the release of several hundred political prisoners — but the most famous opposition leaders will not be included. So, there is no talk of a zero option (complete lifting of sanctions and full compliance with the West's requirements). Minsk proposes to exchange some of the political prisoners for the lifting of sanctions only from the potash industry.
An agreement of this format should have been an obvious success for the Lukashenko regime. He would have freed the key sector of the Belarusian economy from sanctions, he would feel more confident in relations with Moscow, but at the same time more than a thousand political prisoners would still remain in prison and Lukashenko would continue to rule the country through repression.
Belarus can no longer remain a passive participant in Ukraine war
Movement across the border
The West's response to such a proposal is unknown. There were no official statements in this regard. But the very fact of behind-the-scenes negotiations is beyond doubt.
In the meantime, disturbing messages began to arrive from Belarus itself. The unofficial telegram channel of the railway workers @belzhd_live (the resource that first revealed the real scale of the transfer of Russian troops to Belarus in January) reported that the Belarusian Railway is preparing to receive military trains from Russia.
In addition, it was instructed that by September 30, all employees and managers of the Belarusian Railway must sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding confidential information. Political emigrant Nikolai Khalezin, citing his own sources in Belarus, said that almost the entire freight rolling stock of the Belarusian Railways is now reserved for the needs of the Ministry of Defense.
One way or another, the moment of truth is coming for Lukashenko
And on September 28, Belarus announced a "sudden check of combat and mobilization readiness" of military unit 06752 (a large air base), which will continue for a month, allegedly as part of the training plan for the Air Force and Air Defense Forces. During the inspection, it is planned to call up reservists and remove military equipment from storage.
According to the newspaper Nasha Niva, Belarus is preparing to receive mobilized Russians. They will allegedly be trained by Belarusian security forces. At the same time, all security forces have been transferred to an enhanced mode of service, the publication reports.
Kremlin won't accept passivity
The recent events indicate that Putin seems to be firmly determined to put pressure on Lukashenko. Apparently, the Kremlin is no longer going to put up with the passive role of Belarus in the conflict with Ukraine and certain liberties of official Minsk in foreign policy.
At this stage, neither scenario seems fantastic anymore. For example, Latushko believes that in the event of Lukashenko's refusal to obey Putin in matters of war, it may mean his physical liquidation. Then power will pass to the Security Council of Belarus, which is headed by Lieutenant General Alexander Volfovich — a native of Kazan, a graduate of the Military Academy of the General Staff of the Russian Federation. Latushko considers Volfovich “a key agent of the Kremlin's influence within the Lukashenko regime.” It is clear, however, that Putin can choose a forceful solution only as a last resort.
One way or another, the moment of truth is coming for Lukashenko. Now he will probably try his best to play for time, hoping that Putin himself will stop further escalation.
But as Moscow shows no sign of retreating, Lukashenko is forced to make a decision. Either he will make a sharp turn to the West, risking demoralizing his allies and provoking a radical reaction from Russia, or he will have to join Putin's total war, risking turning Belarus into an arena of hostilities. Today, the probability of the latter scenario appears higher than ever before.
* Igor Ilyash is a journalist based in Belarus.
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