As the international community focuses on the tense dialogue between Moscow and Washington over the Ukraine conflict, the situation in Belarus is deteriorating. Since the onset of mass protests in Belarus in August 2020, the power of Aliaksandr Lukashenka – the country’s leader – has rested on two pillars. The first is the backing of the security forces and the loyal nomenklatura; the second is the support of the Kremlin. However, this Russian support, like cheese in a mousetrap, has its price. In exchange for financial and political assistance, Lukashenka is gradually being forced to make Belarus more dependent on its eastern neighbour.
In response to the political crisis, Lukashenka signed a package of symbolic integration agreements with Moscow, recognised Crimea as Russian territory, suspended Belarus’s membership of the Eastern Partnership, and redirected some export flows through Russian ports. He did almost everything to please Russia that he had been avoiding for many years.
However, Lukashenka’s favourite trick with the Kremlin is to engage in anti-Western rhetoric and enhanced military cooperation with Russia. In response to the rising tension between Russia and the West, he has sought to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin by threatening to station Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus, promising to fight against Ukraine if needed, and agreeing to joint military drills with Russia. Such rhetoric cannot greatly worsen his relationship with the West, given that this is more dead than alive. The Kremlin, of course, is happy to hear it. And, unlike structural economic and political integration between Belarus and Russia, such rhetoric costs Lukashenka little. After Russian tanks roll across Belarusian soil during the military exercises, Moscow will probably receive a hefty bill from Minsk for these allied services.
For Russia, deploying larger forces in Belarus for manoeuvres is a convenient way to increase pressure on Ukraine. While these manoeuvres are scheduled to be conducted during 10-20 February, troops from Russia’s Eastern Military District are already arriving in Belarus. Russia has deployed these troops not only near the border with Ukraine but also in other areas of Belarus far from those in which the exercises are set to occur. Russian forces have brought an unprecedented quantity of military equipment into Belarus. However, it remains unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to invade Ukraine again. In all likelihood, his plans remain a mystery even to Lukashenka.
This deployment of Russian troops complicates Ukraine’s defensive preparations, as it forces the Ukrainian military to ready itself for a potential invasion from Belarus as well, further stretching its forces. Even in the case of a limited war, the dispersion of defensive forces across Ukraine would make it more difficult and time-consuming for Kyiv to react to another Russian invasion – which would occur at the location and time of Putin’s choice. If Russia launched an all-out war on Ukraine and occupied the entire country, these forces would prevent the Ukrainian civil resistance movement from establishing supply lines through Belarus to Poland.
However, to meet one of Moscow’s demands, Lukashenka recently proposed a new constitution. And elements of that proposal hint that he does not want Belarus to be directly involved in Russia’s war on Ukraine. While he plans to remove an existing constitutional clause on Belarus’s commitment to neutrality and its ban on hosting nuclear weapons, he wants to include a provision stating that “military aggression from the territory of the Republic of Belarus against other states is excluded”. He aims to hold a referendum on these changes – or, more accurately, engage in a performance that simulates the will of the people – on 27 February. Lukashenka has said that the outbreak of war could lead to the postponement of the referendum. Given that he is not overly enthusiastic about the prospect of a new constitution, the military situation may provide him with an excuse to delay the referendum.
One can expect Moscow to maintain a certain level of military presence in Belarus after the current crisis. The Russian military has established four airbases, one base for surface-to-air missiles, and around 30 storage sites in the country for the purpose of hosting reinforcements in the case of a conflict. Before August 2020, Belarus strictly limited Russia’s use of these sites to scheduled manoeuvres. But this changed thanks to the collapse of Lukashenka’s legitimacy and his growing need for Russian assistance, which provided Moscow with the opportunity to use these facilities almost as it wished.
Formally, there is no permanent Russian military presence in Belarus of any significance. But Moscow may seek to establish a permanent rotational military presence there – as a way to mirror, in a more aggressive fashion, NATO’s permanent rotation of forces in eastern Europe under its Enhanced Forward Presence. The constant military movements this involved would generate some nervousness in the West. To push NATO to abandon its Enhanced Forward Presence, Moscow could combine provocative action with the argument that Russia will station its military in Belarus if NATO does not withdraw its forces from eastern Europe. Such an offer would be particularly threatening to NATO countries in eastern Europe – which watch Russia’s rapid military build-up around Ukraine with alarm, knowing that only the support of the United States and other allies can protect them from such a force.
Regardless of whether Russia invades Ukraine again, Belarus’s territory will increasingly become a source of military threats to all its western neighbours – not just Ukraine. In his desperation to please the Kremlin, Lukashenka risks torching the independence of his country.
Europeans should be careful not to lose sight of this broad erosion of the security and political order in the east, even if Russia does not launch another major offensive against Ukraine. Although the West has stronger leverage to preserve Ukraine’s independence, it should not accept changes to Belarus’s status. Within the limited range of options it has, the West should try to resist Russia’s gradual absorption of Belarus.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.