When it comes to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, there are few greater partners in crimes than Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko. Since Russia’s invasion on 24 February, the pariah state has provided Putin with territory for the deployment of troops and military assaults on its neighbour.
So far, Belarus’s own troops have not been sent into Ukraine, but this does not alleviate the Belarusian authorities of responsibility in the war.
A historically unreliable ally
In the past, Lukashenko has often skilfully played Russia against its geopolitical competitors despite Belarus’ high economic dependency on Russia. Lukashenko has oscillated in the country’s foreign policy between Russia and alternative partners, and from 2015 to 2020, there was even a rapprochement with EU, in part thanks to Belarus’ refusal to recognise Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea.
Lukashenko also stood up to Putin on matters of strategic importance for Belarus’ independence such as the introduction of a common currency in the mid 2000s within the Union State, a supranational organisation linking both countries, or the establishment of a Russian air base in 2015 coveted by the Kremlin since the 2013-14 Maidan revolution in Ukraine.
In the context of the Donbas war that followed, Lukashenko, thanks to his manoeuvring skills, temporarily changed his international image from “Europe’s last dictator” to that of a “mediator in the Ukrainian crisis”, offering his territory to host talks in 2014-15.
At the time he adopted an ambiguous stance, not recognising Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, yet endorsing Putin’s actions there and the Donbas. Still, despite increased pressure from the Kremlin, in 2022 Lukashenko remained vague on the question of Crimea as well as the status of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk that Russia recognised as independent on the eve of its invasion into Ukraine.
Nowhere left to turn but Moscow
Despite the balancing act, Lukashenko’s own choices put him firmly in Russia’s vicelike grip after he refused to give in to his country’s pro-democracy forces in August 2020. Since then, he’s kept into power largely thanks to Putin, who has allowed him to secure the support of the Belarusian regime’s three remaining pillars: the siloviki (men with roots in the country’s security or military services), the country’s executive vertical, and about 20-30% of the electorate.
Lukashenko further isolated himself from the West by ordering the hijacking of an airplane flying between two European capitals and provoking a migration crisis within Poland and Lithuania. The growing dependency on Russia also led to the creation of joint military training centres that served as a pretext for Russia maintaining a permanent military presence in Belarus.
Over time, Lukashenko has portrayed NATO and the West as a threat to both Russia and Belarus. When protests emerged in Kazakhstan in January 2022, Lukashenko pushed to send troops there under the flag of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which is under Russian leadership, and held the West, and more specifically Poland, responsible for the unrest.
This was not the first time that he turned to the CSTO military alliance to help fellow autocrats stay in power. In 2010, he requested that it send troops to back Kyrgyzstan’s Kurmanbek Bakiyev, without success. This time he had more luck convincing Putin to give a hand to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in Kazakhstan to defeat competing political groups trying to capitalize on what were initially economically driven protests.
On 27 February Belarus adopted a new Constitution under Kremlin pressure, although Lukashenko told the media three days earlier he was happy with the previous version. The new text, which was approved in a referendum grossly violating democratic procedures, was stripped of articles that committed Belarus to denuclearisation and neutrality. Members of the Belarusian opposition such as Anatoli Liabedzka have said the change set up the “legal foundation for a Russian military base and the placement of nuclear weapons” on Belarusian territory.
On the day of the vote, the Belarusian opposition decided to mobilise the electorate on anti-war sentiments. For the first time since December 2020, Belarusians took the streets, forming picket lines and chanting anti-war slogans outside polling stations. Approximately 800 people were detained, according to the human rights defence centre Viasna. The opposition in exile encouraged their supporters to invalidate ballots by voting both for and against the new constitution, and some not only responded to this call but also added anti-war messages, as suggested by photos surfaced on the Internet.
Lukashenko’s ambiguous anti-war stance
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, the Belarusian president initially blamed the Ukrainian administration for not capitulating in the face of a powerful nuclear state. He has warned of a potential bloodbath and denied that his country’s has participated in the war, pointing to the non-involvement of Belarusian troops in the invasion. However, he promptly contradicted himself by stating during the same meeting that his military forces “will be there if needed”.
A few days later, at an event celebrating the new constitution on March 4, he tried to reassure his inner circle that he would not send Belarusian troops to fight in Ukraine. Indeed, the perception of the war in Belarus, a country where one in every four people lost their lives between 1941 and 1944, is very different from perceptions in Russia.
In a poll conducted by the Chatham House from 20 January to 9 February, the majority of Belarusian city dwellers opposed sending soldiers to Ukraine, preferring that authorities adopt a neutral position. This is hardly surprising in a country where many have been traumatised by the proximity to the battlefields of the Second World War, according to Belarusian sociologist Hienadz Korshunau. While Ukraine has regularly been discredited on Belarusian state TV since 2014, overall it’s far less than in Russia.
Lukashenko has sought to distract from Belarus’ participation in the war by filling prime-time TV programmes with festivities. As such, on 5 March he took part in a skiing event, and the next day, media covered a running event in Minsk involving 300 women. The Ministry of Defence also released a sarcastic video featuring representatives of the Belarusian army denying their presence in Ukraine. However, such attempts may fall on deaf ears, as Belarusians have increasingly switched off state media.
Given Belarusians’ limited appetite for the war, including among the president’s own supporters, Lukashenko’s hosting mediation talks on 28 February and 3 March looks rational. It also gives him manoeuvrability room with Putin to justify not sending in troops and thus risking fewer sanctions on the part of the West.
While Lukashenko is striving to remain independent despite his need for Putin’s support, any hopes that he might bail out of the alliance with Russia remain slim.