Belarusian threat. Will Lukashenka become an instrument of Russia’s aggression?

For a long time, one of the most popular politicians for Ukrainians was the ruler of neighbouring Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Largely due to the fact that during his many years of uncontested rule he managed to successfully sell stability and neutrality to the post-Soviet paternalistic society. Against the background of political and economic cataclysms that regularly rolled over ordinary Ukrainians, such an outwardly serene existence of neighbours objectively aroused envy.

 But there was a price behind this serenity, stability and neutrality, which many did not see or tried to ignore. This is the lack of development, first of all, of the Belarusian society and state itself. And also dependence on the Kremlin. Dependence, which for a long time managed to cover up with «situational neutrality» and «donation of stability».

Even the events of 2014, when many masks were dropped, did not particularly show this dependence. Perhaps the other way around. Lukashenka set up the «Minsk negotiation platform» just in time, which the confused West immediately took advantage of. This gave Lukashenka regime international weight and allowed it to manoeuvre between Moscow, Brussels, Washington and Beijing.

 Minsk continued to enjoy the benefits of the Customs Union, becoming a hub for sanctioned European delicacies for the Moscow bourgeoisie, but was in no hurry to recognize the Kremlin’s new territorial acquisitions. The Belarusian regime allowed its territory to be used to demonstrate to the West the power of the new reformed Russian army during numerous joint manoeuvres, but at the same time it successfully avoided the creation of any Russian bases on its territory.

At the same time, Ukraine, which withstood the blow of Russian hybrid troops, even managed to close a number of gaps in its military supplies at the expense of Belarus. The Ukrainian tanks and combat vehicles consumed diesel, processed at Belarusian refineries from Russian oil. Heavy Belarusian MAZ trucks under the «Bogdan» brand, modified with  new high-cross-country wheels at the Cherkasy plant of the fifth president of Ukraine, pulled powerful «Giatsint» howitzers to the thin red line of the civilizational fault crossing the wide Donbass steppe.

At the same time, in private communication, Lukashenka guaranteed to his Ukrainian counterparts that Belarus would not allow Russian troops to use its territory to create any threat to the territory of Ukraine. Belarusian experts echoed in unison with the authorities. Moreover, both those who could be suspected of cooperation with the official Minsk, and those who belonged to the opposition camp.

Objectively, it must be said that such assurances have always been questioned by Ukrainian military analysts. After all, between Russia and Belarus since the 90s there was an agreement on a so-called «union state». Within the framework of these allied relations, corresponding treaties in the defence sphere were signed. At the same time, the word «defence» should not mislead anyone. Especially after 2014.

Representatives of the Belarusian authorities did not like to talk about this, but back in 2000, the Regional Group of Forces (RGF) was created, which corresponded to the agreements concluded within the so-called «union state». The group included the Armed Forces of Belarus and the 20th Combined Arms Army of the Russian army. Since 2006, joint exercises of the two countries have been regularly held, the analysis of which shows that, in fact, within the framework of the RGF, Belarusian troops were transferred under the direct command and control of Russian generals, who in the Western strategic direction, including against Ukraine, operated on the territory of Belarus quite freely.

 The reassignment of formations of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus and their control during the joint training and combat missions to the Russian command was worked out within the framework of the «Union Shield‑2015» exercise. Later, during the large-scale joint exercises «West‑2017», a large-scale operation in the Western strategic direction was fully worked out by the grouping of troops of the «union state» according to a single plan and under a single command, which was carried out by the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces. At the same time, Belarusian troops, reinforced by Russian intelligence, special operations forces, missile forces and aviation of the Russian Armed Forces, made up the first echelon of the united group, and the troops of the Western Military District of the Russian Armed Forces – the second echelon.

Interestingly, the overall design of the exercises was purely offensive in nature as part of a strategic operation against NATO troops. Thus, as a result of offensive actions, Russia had to achieve the neutrality of the Baltic states and prevent the deployment of NATO troops on their territory, «return Russian historical territories» in Latvia and Estonia and to create a transport corridor to the Kaliningrad enclave. In the event of  active counter-offensive actions by NATO, the design of the exercises provided for the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which was supposed to «stop» the conflict and force NATO to sit down at the negotiating table on Moscow’s terms.

Finally, the stability and neutrality of the Belarusian regime collapsed in August 2020. The political crisis that broke out as a result of the presidential elections in Belarus and the reluctance of Lukashenka to give up power led to a significant aggravation of relations between Minsk and the West. Further European sanctions and Lukashenka’s search for support from the Kremlin led to a critical increase in Belarus’ dependence on Russian aid.

Accordingly, the policy of the Belarusian ruler towards neighbours has also changed. There is no trace of the previous rhetoric of «situational neutrality» and «donation of stability». It was successfully replaced by the most aggressive clichés from the arsenal of Russian propaganda, both against the countries of the European Union and NATO, and Ukraine, where Lukashenka began to play up especially actively with Russian narratives, which had never happened before.

It is absolutely natural that the Kremlin used the isolation of Lukashenka regime to increase its own influence over its vulnerable ally. Here it is necessary to highlight several aspects.

Firstly, Russia remains practically the only creditor of Belarus, which draws Minsk into hopeless financial bondage and critical economic dependence. This creates a wide field for the Kremlin to pursue its interests in this country. Roughly speaking, in the implementation of its strategic plans, both against the West and against Ukraine, the Kremlin can de facto neglect such a factor as the sovereignty of Belarus.

Secondly, Russian politicians are more and more inclined to think that only a permanent military presence can guarantee the preservation of Russian influence and Russian interests in Belarus. This has been successfully demonstrated by the example of Armenia and, by the way, the Crimea. Therefore, the creation of conditions for the deployment of Russian troops on Belarusian territory is already acquiring real features. The first signals were sounded back in 2020.

At first, a decision was made to resume joint (Russia + Belarus) patrolling of the airspace of Belarus within the framework of the agreement «On joint protection of the Union State border in the airspace and the creation of a unified regional air defence system of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation». This already presupposes the redeployment of Russian fighters and, accordingly, flight and technical personnel to the territory of Belarus. Moreover, the Russians make no secret of the fact that joint patrolling is a stage in the creation of a Russian air base on the territory of their ally. In 2015, when such plans were announced, Lukashenka got angry, and the Russians suspended everything. Now it is difficult to say whether Lukashenka will be able to get out of the «brotherly embrace». On the contrary, a number of experts believe that, in spite of the rhetoric, Lukashenka himself may be potentially interested in the constant presence of any Russian security officials at hand, on whom he can rely in case of any threat to him.

Also, Belarus and Russia agreed to create three joint combat training centres within the framework of the bilateral Strategic Partnership Program for 2021-2025. One of these facilities, the Joint Combat Training Centre of the Air Force and Air Defence, will be located on the territory of Belarus in the Hrodna region. Its main goal will be to train the crews of the Su‑30SM aircraft, train Belarusian specialists to work with modern anti-aircraft missile systems in service with the Russian Armed Forces, as well as to jointly perform combat training tasks.

In addition, in January 2021, there was information that Belarus offered the Russians to create electronic intelligence points on their border with Ukraine to perform, as indicated, «common tasks». Unambiguously, the Russians are interested in the deployment of such points.

At the same time, it should be noted that the likelihood of using Belarusian forces against Ukraine has always been considered low. This is primarily due to the fact that the Belarusian direction against Ukraine is of little use for conducting offensive operations by large groupings of troops. But for conducting reconnaissance, sending sabotage groups and other specific tasks, the impassable Ukrainian-Belarusian border is just right. As well as for aviation actions.

In addition, Polish experts note that within the framework of the joint exercises «West‑2021» in Belarus, Russians pay special attention to creating a positive image of their troops and their perception by the local population. Indirectly, this can also testify in favour of the implementation of plans for a permanent military presence of Russian troops in Belarus.

The third factor is that the Kremlin uses the critical position of the Belarusian regime and a certain breakaway from the reality of Aliaksandr Lukashenka himself in order to «frighten» the West. Many illogical and aggressive actions of the illegitimate Belarusian leader drive him even more into a dead corner, really making him the last dictator of Europe. Against this background, Vladimir Putin no longer looks like such a cannibal. On the contrary, he is the only one who can influence Lukashenka. Therefore, the Kremlin is most likely behind the landing of the plane with Raman Pratasevich, which has become a phenomenon of state terrorism, as well as behind the migration crisis, which is interpreted in Europe as an act of hybrid aggression. Such actions have a one-time or short-term effect: both Poland and Lithuania will strengthen the border and the uncontrolled flow of migrants will subside. The European Union will definitely help them. But there will be long lasting consequences for Lukashenka regime.  

It is difficult to predict what may follow next, what the disoriented dictator will think of (and, perhaps, Russian friends will push him to). One cannot even exclude such fantastic options as the accident at the Belarusian nuclear power plant, or its imitation. One thing is certain: Lukashenka and his regime have already become a pariah in the eyes of the world community, and there is no way out for him from this status.

It should be noted that against this background, the Kremlin is changing its militant rhetoric towards Europe in a certain way. For example, the information support for the «West‑2021» exercise differs significantly from the 2017 rhetoric. If at that time the Russians tried to «scare» the West with their military power and slight silliness, then, as mentioned above, now this role is assigned to Lukashenka. On the contrary, the main information message from the Russian Federation, which is recorded by both Poles and Lithuanians, is now completely different: «We do not pose any threat to you». Of course, the Russians want to play in this way in contrast to Lukashenka, and they also need to launch Nord Stream 2. Perhaps the point is also in the plans to deploy their troops in Belarus – they do not want to escalate the situation.

But most likely the reason is different: changing the strategic alignment of forces in the region. No, the Russian threat to the Baltic states and Poland potentially persists. It’s just that NATO is better prepared now than in 2017. The Russians understand this. The Poles decided to buy 250 Abrams tanks for a reason. The United States and NATO are regularly working on strengthening their groupings in the Baltic direction. And the annual exercise «Defender Europe» has reached the scale of the Cold War.

It can be said unambiguously that the level of threats for Ukraine is not decreasing. Moreover, it cannot be ruled out that the Kremlin will try to involve official Minsk in its Ukrainian adventure. A number of military experts believed that during the Belarusian phase of the «West‑2021» exercise, where it was planned to practice the conduct of hostilities in an urbanized area, the Russians imitated the storming of Kyiv. One of the possible directions of attack on the Ukrainian capital is through the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which also covers the territory of Belarus. By the way, some of the Russian politicians once suggested using nuclear weapons against Ukraine right here. As a result, we can say that the delegitimized Lukashenka regime is potentially turning into a foreign policy instrument of the Kremlin. Therefore, there is a question: the assault of which city Belarusian paratroopers will train together with their Russian allies?

published at: Belarus Security Blog

Igor Levchenko

Head of Strategic Modeling Section

He earned Master’s in Political Science at the faculty of Political and Social Studies, Kyiv Dragomanov University in 2008 and Master’s in International Relations at the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine in 2015. Before 2014 his expertise focused as on internal political process in Ukraine and European integration. He was political adviser for several Ukrainian MPs and political leaders.

After beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine Mr. Levchenko became a member of Security Expert Board and started his collaboration with Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies. His research focused on wide range of security and defense matters in the region of East and South Europe as well as Wide Black Sea region.

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