‘Russian pressure is too strong’: Is Putin pulling Belarus into the war in Ukraine?
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi on September 26, 2022. © Gavril Grigorov, Sputnik, AFP

President Alexander Lukashenko announced on Monday that Belarus will more actively support its Russian ally in the war against Ukraine. Analysts say Lukashenko is reluctant to send troops – especially since a wave of protests in 2020 exposed his immense unpopularity at home – but is likely caving to pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Belarus has had only limited involvement in the war raging on its southern border since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. Although President Alexander Lukashenko has allowed Russia to fire missiles from Belarusian territory since the early days of the conflict, he has remained mostly on the sidelines.

But that stance shifted on October 10, when Lukashenko said that Belarus will deploy troops to a “joint military group” fighting in tandem with Russian forces.

The 68-year-old dictator, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, also confirmed his country will host more Russian troops. To justify the moves, Lukashenko accused Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine of training militants to attack Belarus. "The training in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine of Belarusian radical militants for them to carry out sabotage, terrorist attacks and to organize a military mutiny in the country is becoming a direct threat," Lukashenko told a meeting of military officials.

He also accused Ukraine of planning attacks “on the territory of Belarus” from the south.

“Reports that the Belarusian railway company is expecting big convoys from Russia, and that training camps in Belarus are preparing to receive Russian soldiers, suggest that Lukashenko is ready to act,” said Nadja Douglas, a researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies in Berlin.

Belarus never had the option of staying neutral in the invasion of Ukraine, given how dependent Belarus remains on Russia. Since the outset of the invasion, Belarus has provided a rear base for Russia’s unsuccessful attempt to seize Kyiv and a staging area for both Russian troops and missiles. “Russia fired artillery and missiles into Ukraine from Belarus,” noted Ekaterina Pierson-Lyzhina, a Belarus specialist at the Free University of Brussels.

“Lukashenko went along with Putin and reinforced his desire for war, while his anti-NATO rhetoric further inflamed tensions,” she said.

But at the same time, Lukashenko has tried to present himself as one of Russia’s more reasonable allies and a potential interlocutor for the West; he wanted to look like a man of peace.

As part of this balancing act, Lukashenko has repeated Russian propaganda lines about merely responding to Ukrainian and Western provocations.

But Lukashenko has also referred to the conflict as a “war”, rejecting Russia’s false narrative that the invasion is simply a “special military operation”.

Lukashenko’s strategy is to “show the West he is independent of Moscow”, said Pierson-Lyzhina pointed.

Lukashenko even announced an amnesty for some political prisoners, which could be seen as an olive branch to the West – the release of political prisoners is a key Western condition for any lifting of the sanctions imposed on Belarus at the start of the war in Ukraine.

‘Pressure from Russia is too strong’

But in the end it is domestic concerns that guide the autocrat’s thinking, some analysts say.

“Lukashenko has been reluctant to send Belarusian soldiers to Ukraine because he knows that most Belarusians are opposed to it,” Douglas said.

While Lukashenko’s government successfully, if brutally, repressed a wave of protests after his re-election in 2020, a vote widely seen as rigged, he has no desire to elicit more bad publicity for his regime by provoking a new round of demonstrations.

Not only is Lukashenko concerned about public opinion, Douglas said, “the army’s loyalty is not absolute”.

“He relies mainly on the internal security services, to the detriment of the soldiers tasked with border protection – so he can’t really count on the army, which is unlikely to be very motivated.”

Yet Lukashenko seems willing to forge ahead regardless. “Pressure from Russia has become too strong,” Pierson-Lyzhina said.

Minsk fears that ongoing discussions about a Union State of Russia and Belarus – a fusion of the two countries – would effectively “unite Belarus with Russia under Moscow’s rule”, Douglas said. “The Belarusian leadership started to fear not just for its autonomy, but for its sovereignty.”

Lukashenko, therefore, had to show Putin that an independent Belarus can still be of benefit to Russia.

And the explosion on the Kerch Bridge may have given Minsk its casus belli. If Lukashenko decides to consider the bridge attack “a Ukrainian attack on Russian soil” this “would oblige Belarus to join the war” in light of the two countries’ mutual defence obligations.

What’s in it for Russia?

For Russia, Belarusian involvement in its war is principally a symbolic win: It makes Putin slightly less isolated as he takes on a resilient, fiercely motivated Ukraine supplied with modern NATO weapons.

It also allows Putin to “tighten his grip on Belarus”, Douglas said. If Lukashenko does indeed send troops to Ukraine, he will find it exceedingly difficult to carry on his diplomatic dance between Russia and the West. So Moscow is “cementing the Belarusian government’s loyalty”, as Douglas put it.

But it is unlikely that increased Belarusian military involvement will boost Russia’s flagging performance in Ukraine. The Belarusian army has 40,000 men with “very little modern equipment and no real combat experience”, said Douglas.

There is currently talk of amassing 10,000 men on the Ukrainian border – but they would have “very little impact against better-equipped and better-trained Ukrainian troops”.

And Moscow should not expect Belarus to mobilize its reservists the way Russia has. “Lukashenko will never put weapons in the hands of a Belarusian population that could turn against him,” Pierson-Lyzhina said.

She argued that Minsk’s engagement in the war could carry one strategic benefit for Russia despite Belarus’s relative military weakness. It would create a measure of “insecurity” on Ukraine’s northern border, preventing Kyiv from throwing all of its resources at the southern and eastern fronts.

Nevertheless, Lukashenko is taking a “colossal political risk”, according to Pierson-Lyzhina. The strongman’s grip is probably adequate to ensure that increased involvement in Ukraine will not spark a revolt on its own. But sooner or later, if the war in Ukraine results in sending “coffins back to Belarus, the situation could become unpredictable for Lukashenko”.