Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, has allowed Russia to use his country’s territory to invade Ukraine, and changed its constitution so it could host Russian nuclear missiles.
But there is one bridge he has so far refused to cross: sending Belarusian troops to join the Russian assault on their common neighbour. “We’re not going to get involved,” Lukashenko told a gathering of security officials this week. “There’s no need for it.”
Yet as Russia’s invasion stalls in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance, officials in Kyiv have warned that Lukashenko — who survived huge anti-regime protests in 2020 largely thanks to Kremlin support — may not be able to keep his troops on the sidelines forever.
Ukraine recently accused Russia of a “false flag” attack on Belarus to draw it into the war. Last weekend, Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s national security chief, claimed Russia was trying to persuade Belarusian soldiers to enter Ukrainian territory disguised as Russians. “They have a great desire to put Belarusian soldiers in uniforms of the Russian Federation,” he said.
Belarus dismissed the false flag claims as “nonsense”, and opinion polls suggest that Belarusians are strongly opposed to their soldiers taking part in the war. A senior US defence official said there were no indications that Belarus was putting troops into Ukraine, or preparing to do so.
But as the war enters its fourth week, Russia’s need of reinforcements is increasingly clear. US officials have estimated that about 6,000 Russians have died in the conflict so far.
Russia has not given figures since March 2, when it said it had suffered 498 casualties. But in a tacit admission of his military problems, President Vladimir Putin last week gave approval for 16,000 “volunteers” from the Middle East to join the Russian cause.
Analysts say Lukashenko has limited ability to resist Russian pressure to join the fight.
For much of his almost three decades in power, the former collective farm boss sought to maintain some degree of autonomy from Moscow by cultivating ties with the EU.
But that strategy collapsed in 2020, when Lukashenko launched a brutal crackdown on protests against his claim to have won a sixth straight term as president.
The west responded with tough sanctions, which have hit key sectors of the Belarusian economy, and made Lukashenko more dependent than ever on Russian political and economic support.
Katia Glod, a Belarus expert from the Center for European Policy Analysis think-tank, said of the chances of Belarusian troops joining the fighting: “It will all boil down to whether Putin decides he needs them.”
She continued: “Especially with Russian troops in the country, and under the current sanctions. Lukashenko is economically so dependent on Russia that he has no space for manoeuvre.”
Belarus’s military, with just 45,000 personnel, is small compared with that of Russia and Ukraine, and has less combat experience. But given the heavy losses that Russia has suffered, a deployment of Belarusian forces could be useful for the Kremlin, said François Heisbourg, a French defence analyst.
“The Russians need bodies. They’ve already had a few thousand Chechens and now they’re talking about flying in Syrians,” he said. “For the urban combat phase in particular you really need a lot of manpower and that’s exactly what the Russians don’t currently have. So the notion of filling in with Belarusians . . . would actually make a lot of sense.”
Others are sceptical, both about Belarus’s military capabilities, and how motivated its soldiers would be to fight Ukrainians.
“It certainly wouldn’t be decisive,” said Mark Cancian, a former US marine corps colonel now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington. “The only way it could be . . . really significant would be if they were willing to open another front further to the west.”
Yet this would be a “highly risky” strategy for Belarus, which would have to rely on its own inexperienced troops. “But it would [also] be a problem for the Ukrainians, in the sense that it would be yet another thrust they’d have to defend against,” he added.
Michal Baranowski, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw, said it would be “very significant” if Belarusian forces joined the war and were able to close off Ukraine’s western border, as it was the main route for inflows of weapons supplies from Ukraine’s allies.
But he said closing such a long border would be a huge undertaking and was “very unlikely at the moment”.
“The biggest question is not how much public support there is [for Belarusian involvement], but how much room for manoeuvre Lukashenko has versus Putin, and how much he’s entirely a puppet,” he said. “If he is, that would be the scenario where we could see Belarusian forces as part of Russian military.”
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Bratislava
Source: Financial Times