They now have “practically a joint army,” according to dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Nevertheless, people in Kyiv do not believe that Belarus will join the war on the side of Russia. But if Putin orders it, the horror could become a brutal reality.
According to the conceptual American psychologist Lillian Glass, a sign of a toxic relationship is when “one tries to undermine the other”. It doesn’t take a state exam to see that equality between the Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is not far off.
Out of sheer self-preservation, Lukashenko has never missed an opportunity to praise his deep ties to Moscow since the near-revolution two years ago. The cooperation now goes so far “that we practically have a joint army,” the 67-year-old explained a few days ago at a celebration to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Minsk by the Red Army in World War II.
Now Lukashenko’s frantic efforts to obey every snap of his fingers from Moscow has the potential to give goosebumps not only in Kyiv, but also in the West. The idea that Belarus could not only indirectly support the Russian invasion, but actively enter the war could be decisive for the war.
Alexander Lukashenko: the last dictator in Europe
Lukashenko, 67, is considered one of Putin’s closest allies. So it’s hardly surprising that he adapts every flimsy war rhetoric from Moscow. Russia is fighting National Socialism in its “sister nation” Ukraine and is building “a protective wall against the abuse of the Russian people,” he was quoted as saying a few days ago on the country’s official website. It’s no secret that the despot longs for a return to the supposedly glorious Soviet era.
So he doesn’t just call Russia a brother state. Rather, the alliance with the Kremlin is the beginning of a transformation towards a “single, powerful, independent union state made up of two independent peoples”. Lukashenko, commonly known as “Europe’s last dictator,” not only panders to the Kremlin – he submits completely. Solely to maintain his iron grip on the Belarusian people.
Lukashenko, whom the New York Times described as a “one-man state” in a brief portrait last November, has allowed Belarus to degenerate into a penniless buffer state between Russia and the EU and thus NATO in the almost three decades of his rule. Whether it’s rigging elections, suppressing the media, or imprisoning critics, one might think that Putin and Lukashenko are brothers in spirit, albeit unequal.
Belarus has long been a client state of Russia
However, this was not always the case. For decades, Lukashenko tried his best to strike a political balance between West and East, playing the world powers off against each other whenever he saw an opportunity to his own advantage. His flirtation with the West after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, in which he presented himself as a mediator, was not only short-lived, but ultimately also marked a turning point. At least since the violent suppression of the demonstrations in Belarus in 2020, Lukashenko has been completely at the mercy of his Moscow “colleague”. In order to secure his power, Lukashenko had no choice but to beg Putin for help after the Western sanctions began. In return for cash injections and personal security guarantees from Moscow, the dictator dropped the last bit of neutrality.
The “Wilson Center” sums up how Putin succeeded in Belarus in what he is trying to achieve by force in Ukraine. In a process that has been gradual since the 1990s and finally culminated in 2020, the nation has mutated more and more into a Russian satellite state – without a shot ever having to be fired. The Kremlin has created a model of “sponsored authoritarianism” that sells a semblance of independence but grants complete control.
For Moscow, Belarus is important for two reasons. The neighboring state serves as an economic hub through which more than a fifth of Russian energy exports to the EU pass through transit routes. More important, however, is the security policy value. The so-called Suwalki Corridor, a 65-kilometer strip of land on the Polish-Lithuanian border, is the shortest route to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and thus to the Baltic Sea.
“Extended arm of the Kremlin”
The blank check from Minsk was decisive in the run-up to the Russian invasion preparations. Before the first tanks rolled over Ukrainian soil on February 24, Lukashenko had granted more than 30,000 Russian soldiers access to the Belarusian-Ukrainian border as part of what were supposed to be “military exercises”, giving the invaders the perfect starting point for their assault on Kyiv.
It took less than three days for Lukashenko to initiate a constitutional amendment that would allow Russia to station nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil. In the same month, fears grew that Belarus would actively go to war alongside Russia. And that fear persists to this day.
In the meantime, the British “Independent” reports, the landlocked country between West and East has become Putin’s most important military hub. Not least as a base for the Russian air force, Belarus is considered indispensable for the Kremlin. “Minsk is an extension of the Kremlin,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told the newspaper last month.
The fear of the three-front war
Belarus poses a threat to Ukraine not only in its function as an aircraft hangar and rocket store. While the defenders are concentrating on withstanding the Russian attrition fire in the east and south of the country, fears are growing in Kyiv that Lukashenko, as a puppet of the Kremlin, could attack with his own troops from the north-west and put Kyiv under siege again. In this case, according to the Australian news network “The Conversation”, the Ukrainian general staff would have no choice but to withdraw units from the east. Should Lukashenko, in an utter act of devotion, decide to take this step, Ukraine would have to fight on three fronts. However, President Zelenskyy doubts that this horror scenario will actually materialize. In an interview in early June, he classified the probability of a Belarusian invasion as minimal, The Conversation continued. However, consider that the Ukrainian president officially dismissed an attack by the Russians as scaremongering before February 24.
Meanwhile, the saber-rattling on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border continues. According to media reports, Lukashenko decided to increase the army from 65,000 to 80,000 soldiers and held further military exercises. In the style of Putin’s driven rhetoric, Lukashenko said about a month ago that Belarus could be forced to go to war so that western Ukraine would not be “chopped off” by NATO.
As the US think tank “Atlantic Council” explains, citing a confidential, unpublished report, Lukashenko is said to have recently instructed his former interior minister and current chairman of the Belarusian Society of Hunters and Fishermen to set up a 5,000-strong militia. The report also assumes that Russian private military companies, above all the notorious Wagner group, are increasingly recruiting in Belarus.
It is difficult to say whether all this is just a bluff to induce Kyiv to withdraw troops in the east and south.
Lukashenko’s weak point: his own population
But there is also resistance. According to reports, Belarusian cyber activists hacked into the national railway network, among other things, in order to prevent supplies for the Russian troops. The regime-suppressed opposition, led by Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the 2020 presidential candidate, has also launched an anti-war movement and, according to the Wilson Center, is fighting, among other things, pro-Russian disinformation campaigns in Belarus. A contingent of Belarusian volunteers is also reportedly supporting the Ukrainians against the invaders.
But the only thing that could actually stop the dictator from going to war at the behest of the Kremlin are the Belarusians themselves. According to a poll by the British think tank Chatham House in April, 40 percent of Belarusians were against military action in Ukraine, about 32 percent for it. Around half of the population fears the consequences of entering the war – for themselves and for the country. This anti-war mood could be the reason why Lukashenko has not arbitrarily ordered the invasion of the neighboring country. In the event of a declaration of war, he not only has to reckon with mass demonstrations by the civilian population, but above all with a mutiny by the military. According to the Chatham House poll, not even a fifth of the population believes that their own armed forces would take an active part in the war – even if Lukashenko gave the order.
Clear division of roles when the autocrats close ranks
And so Lukashenko has to limit himself – for the time being – to entertaining the invaders and spitting poison and bile. What is clear, however, is that the roles are clearly divided when the autocrats join forces.
Yes, Lukashenko and Putin are allies, but certainly not friends. Both are driven by the unconditional will to retain power. But for the Kremlin boss, the dictator is just a commodity that he will get rid of without hesitation when it becomes useless. Lukashenko knows that too – but there is no way out for him.
It doesn’t matter how the war in Ukraine ends – the despot ends up as the loser. At least that’s the conclusion reached by the “Atlantic Council”. If Ukraine wins the war, the Minsk ruler will lose the only bargaining chip that protects him from the wrath of the Belarusian people with a weakened Putin. If the war ends with a Russian victory of some kind, the think tank continues, Putin would have no use for Lukashenko.
“Be Belarus, not Russia!” President Zelenskyy once urged the neighboring country. But as long as Lukashenko is in power, there is no difference. As of now, the boundaries will literally continue to blur. And so the Ukrainians’ fight for freedom could also become a showdown in Minsk – and vice versa.
Quellen: “The Independent”; “The Conversation”; “Wilson Center”; “Atlantic Council”; dpa