Two days before the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s defenсe minister spoke on the telephone with his Belarusian counterpart, who assured him that no attack into Ukraine would come from the territory of Belarus. One day before the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s chief border guard was told the same by his opposite number in Minsk. “Unfortunately, we really thought that there would be no attack from […] Belarus,” senior Ukrainian figures have latterly admitted.
This harsh episode illustrates the importance of paying attention more to the actions than the words of Belarusian authorities. It may, therefore, be worth going beyond official statements when considering recent military activities inside the country.
At the start of the war, Belarus’s leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was vocal in his support for Russia. But the more Russian offensives stalled and the more losses Moscow suffered, the less belligerent Lukashenka’s rhetoric has become. The early days of the war saw him promise to send Belarusian troops into Ukraine upon request to fight alongside Russia. This has now evolved into Lukashenka affirming that Belarus simply wants peace – which some observers interpret as an attempt to distance himself from Moscow.
Yet, faced with a looming economic crisis and sustained domestic resistance, Lukashenka’s best bet of clinging onto power is still to stick close to Moscow. And Russia’s leverage – alongside Lukashenka’s brutal crackdown on dissent – could quickly push him to move in ways that belie his newly conciliatory tone.
Recent weeks have seen a flurry of military activity in Belarus, reviving concerns that the Belarusian army will join hostilities in Ukraine. The Belarusian authorities have announced the creation of an operational command in the south of the country. They justified this action by referring to the threat posed by the war in Ukraine and the need to “defend the southern borders”. Additionally, Lukashenka has created a “people’s militia”. These troops will reinforce the 45,000-strong Belarusian army and the territorial defence forces – which convene only in wartime or tense military-political situations – and can number up to 120,000 people. The functions, principles of formation, and tasks of this “people’s militia” remain unclear. But from officials’ confused explanations, it appears that the conscripts’ main features should be ideological purity, devotion to the regime, and at least some experience with weapons.
In the south-western regions of Belarus, the army has been inspecting and preparing its rapid response forces for combat readiness. In parallel with this, in the southern region near the border with Ukraine and in the west near the border with Poland, territorial defence troops are conducting training exercises. According to statements from Belarus’s Ministry of Defence, these comprise “combat coordination, […] measures for the protection and defence of facilities and the fight against sabotage and reconnaissance groups”. Likely because of the exercises, Belarusian authorities have imposed restrictions preventing the entry of ordinary Belarusians to three districts of the Homiel region – which borders Ukraine – from 1 June to 31 August. The authorities claim these restrictions are necessary to “ensure border security”.
The civil monitoring project, Belaruski Hajun, reports that Russian troops may be participating in the training exercises. The monitoring project crowdsources information provided by citizens across Belarus, allowing it to warn in a timely manner about sorties of military aircraft and missile launches, and to record the movement of Russian military equipment. Since the war began, Belaruski Hajun has become a key source of information about the joint military activities of the Lukashenka regime and those of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
And information sharing is not the extent of Belarusian resistance to Lukashenka’s collusion with Russia. Since 24 February, partisans have conducted more than 80 acts of sabotage on railways, which has significantly hampered the logistics of the Russian army in Belarus. To prevent freight trains from transporting troops and equipment to Ukraine, Belarusians have blocked or delayed the movement of Russian military equipment by burning relay boxes and causing railway track alarm systems to malfunction. Furthermore, Belarusian cyber-partisans have attacked databases, train management systems, and the websites of state institutions. This has significantly disrupted Russian supply chains and hindered the replenishment of troops. According to some sources, it has even prompted Russia to switch to greater use of trucks and aircraft.
Meanwhile, Lukashenka has continued cleansing all the structures and people who – in the opinion of the regime – pose a threat to his power. To combat anti-war resistance, the Belarusian security forces have taken a highly punitive stance. They have opened fire on unarmed partisans and introduced legislation under which even an attempt to commit a “terrorist act” will be punishable by death.
In Belarus, where the law is merely decorative, this means the lives of thousands of people currently held hostage by the regime in Belarusian prisons are at risk. Some of their ‘offences’ are already being reclassified. Others are being charged with terrorism – including the prominent opposition activist, Maria Kalesnikava. It is quite possible that, in the near future, Lukashenka will attempt to use the lives of Belarusian political prisoners as a commodity to trade with the West.
Lukashenka’s regime is also in a desperately difficult economic situation. Its only saviour from a large-scale crisis can be Moscow, which itself lacks financial resources and is facing significant economic decline in the coming year. It is likely that Lukashenka will further increase the volume of repression as the risk of labour unrest and strike action intensifies in the coming months.
Lukashenka’s opponents are sensing vulnerability and preparing to make their move. The team of opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has opened its first foreign office in Kyiv. They expect to synchronise efforts with the Ukrainian authorities to apply pressure to both Lukashenka and Putin. Furthermore, the Kalinouski Regiment – a unit of Belarusian soldiers who fight for Ukraine – has promised that, after assisting Ukraine to victory, its goal is to overthrow the Lukashenka regime.
Perhaps, then, it is the foreboding of difficult and dangerous times that explains Belarusian authorities’ recent military activity. Following Russia’s shift in focus from the north to the east of Ukraine, the risk of invasion by the Belarusian army has significantly decreased. With the current deployment of Russian forces in Donbas, there is no point sending the Belarusian army in alone to capture Kyiv – because such an operation would fail. However, the situation at the front can quickly change. And if Putin redeploys Russian units to take Kyiv on the second attempt, the current military manoeuvres in Belarus may prove not to be defensive after all.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.