Putin’s last ally: Why the Belarusian army cannot help Russia in Ukraine

Concerns are mounting that Belarusian troops could join Russia’s forces in Ukraine. But this course of action would be extremely risky – for both Putin and Lukashenka

Belarusian volunteers receive military training at the Belarusian Company base in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 8, 2022. Hundreds of Belarus’ emigrants and citizens have arrived in Ukraine to help the Ukrainian army fight against Russian invaders. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Belarusian volunteers receive military training at the Belarusian Company base in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 8, 2022
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Efrem Lukatsky
©

Vladimir Putin is running out of conventional cards to play in Ukraine. The Ukrainian armed forces are liberating occupied territories and conducting sabotage operations against Russia-controlled targets – allegedly including Putin’s beloved Crimean bridge. The Russian armed forces have squandered their stocks of both missiles and professional military manpower. Beyond nuclear rhetoric, “dirty bomb” blackmail, and terrorising civilians, the Kremlin seems to be out of ideas. Its military commanders have tried ‘blitzkrieg’ and the ‘salami-slicing’ approach they honed in Syria, but to no avail. Now, the Russian regime is trying to mould a “second army of the world” from hundreds of thousands of undertrained civilian conscripts. It is too early to label this attempt a ‘failure’ but the expectations seem ambitious to say the least.

At the same time, Putin may still have one more card up his sleeve: the Belarusian army. Ever since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, rumours have swirled about the imminent entry of Belarusian troops to the fighting. But they have so far remained steadfastly in Belarus. This has given rise to a creeping delusion in the West that Belarus’s leader, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has some kind of mythical resistance to Putin’s pressure. It is more likely, however, that both Minsk and Moscow are quite happy with their current arrangement – or that they know they have no card to play.

It is difficult to find any examples of Putin exerting pressure on Lukashenka in recent months. Rather, the relationship between the two ageing dictators seems to be in its honeymoon phase. Russia has granted Belarus a stay in repayments on loans to the tune of $1 billion and issued a new loan for another $1.5 billion. Moreover, due to Western sanctions on Belarusian goods, 60 per cent of the country’s exports now end up on the Russian market. And Belarus receives Russian gas for the bargain-basement price of just $128.5 per thousand cubic meters (compared to the record-breaking market price of $2,800 this summer). Indeed, Moscow has accommodated all of Minsk’s requests, even regarding an ongoing dispute over oil supplies, which has been a stumbling block between the parties for the past five years.

This harmonious existence would likely not have been possible if Lukashenka had proved a higher-maintenance partner. But he has ceded all military sovereignty over the territory of Belarus. Russian troops can enter, leave, and return to Belarusian territory whenever they want, without the permission of local authorities. And Lukashenka will hardly declare war on Russia because of this ‘trifle’, especially since he realises that Russian tanks can – by extension – enter the territory of his palace.

And yet, the Russian army is indeed heading back into Belarus. Lukashenka, meanwhile, is conducting a covert targeted mobilisation and new propaganda campaign. Former members of the military and retired police officers are receiving summons. Military medics are also in training, and some civilians have received word that, if the need arises, they will be mobilised in the first wave. The head of the Belarusian KGB and other loyal goons are visiting state-owned enterprises, spreading the word about an ‘impending attack’ against Belarus from Ukraine. And, in a special briefing for foreign military attaches, Belarus’s ministry of defence outlined its brand-new right to use “measures of strategic deterrence to prevent an attack”. In short, this all looks highly suspicious – and has prompted renewed concerns that Lukashenka’s troops are about to join the Russian invasion.

But second-guessing the thought processes of authoritarians is a notoriously fraught activity. And, given the apparent lack of Russian pressure on Lukashenka, there could well be other motivations for this flurry of activity. For example, to take the briefing from Belarus’s ministry of defence at face value – Lukashenka may genuinely fear that Ukrainian forces are about to launch an attack on Belarusian territory. After all, they would have good reason to do so: Russia attacked Kyiv from Belarus in February; Ukrainian cities are regularly shelled from Belarusian territory; and Belarusian troops could invade western Ukraine, cutting off supply lines for weapons deliveries. This fear is clearly unfounded from a Western perspective. But it is difficult to assess the degree to which the Belarusian ruler remains a rational actor, and even more so to gauge the ways in which his perceptions of reality differ from those of the West. He may, in turn, simply be hiding behind Russian troops and the threat to join them in Ukraine as an attempt to scare off this imagined danger.

There is also a more cynical explanation. That is, Lukashenka likely realises that if Russia loses this war, his regime will probably not survive – so he needs to help Moscow win at any cost.

But the Belarusian army does not have the capacity turn the tide of the war in favour of Russia. Firstly, it is too small, with the most combat-ready segment not exceeding 15,000 troops. The remainder are about as efficient as Russia’s ragtag bunch of new conscripts. Moreover, the Ukrainian armed forces are now much better prepared for an attack from the north: they have mined the roads and fields on the border with Belarus, destroyed the relevant bridges, and modern Western weapons such as HIMARS anti-tank missiles could prevent troops even crossing the border.

Secondly, Belarusian society is overwhelmingly against the country’s participation in the war – more than 90 per cent reject the idea of joining on the side of Russia. Sending Belarusians to war could therefore provoke a serious wave of discontent within the country, even more so than Putin’s mobilisation has in Russia. The Belarusian democratic forces in exile would likely use this to overthrow the Lukashenka regime. And they are watching closely: just this week, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya urged Belarusian troops to respond to orders to attack Ukraine by laying down their arms and joining the Ukrainian forces.

The funnel of escalation could still suck Belarus deeper in the war

This course of action would therefore be extremely risky – mostly for Lukashenka, but also for Putin, who could lose his only European ally. For now, a reliable and safe base for the Russian army in Belarus could be more valuable than an unpredictable second front in Ukraine. However, as the war progresses and evolves, Belarusian and Russian decision-makers’ assessments of the situation may also change, rationally or otherwise. And they may decide that the costs of not sending Belarusian troops into Ukraine outweigh those of sending them. So, to avoid more armchair psychoanalysis, it will be necessary to closely monitor tangible changes in military activity in Belarus.

Ukraine and its allies should keep track of how many Russian troops and how much equipment actually arrives in the country. Without tens of thousands of Russian soldiers, any new attack on Kyiv will fail – regardless of whether the Belarusian army participates or not. So far, there are no unequivocal signs of preparation for an imminent assault, given that the numbers of Russian soldiers and equipment arriving in Belarus are relatively small. Moreover, the Belarusian military has even sent tanks from Belarus to Russia, indicating an acute shortage of military equipment from Moscow. It is possible, as Belarusian media outlet Nasha Niva and civil monitoring project Hajun report, that the soldiers who have arrived in Belarus are simply Russian conscripts sent there for training.

Be that as it may, the funnel of escalation could still suck Belarus deeper in the war. Belarus’s direct participation would not dramatically change the military balance in Ukraine, but it has the potential to de-stabilise the region even more and provoke another uprising against Lukashenka. Both scenarios require the European Union’s and NATO’s full readiness and willingness to act, much faster and more determinedly than they did during the Belarusian near-revolution in 2020.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

Author

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Subscribe