Russian-Ukrainian war. The involvement of the Belarusian army in it will accelerate the collapse of the Lukashenka regime

Since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka has been a loyal ally of Putin’s Russia. The Russian offensive on Kyiv was launched from Belarus, its territory has actively been used by the Russians for launching missile and air strikes on Ukraine. However, despite this, Lukashenka has not yet taken the last step that Putin has been demanding of him for a long time, namely, he has not entered the war with his army. For various reasons, things are getting worse every day for Lukashenka, and Putin may pressurize the Belarusian dictator. However, the participation of the Belarusian army in the war against Ukraine, instead of military success, is likely to accelerate the collapse of the current Belarusian regime.

Completely dependent on Russia

Despite Lukashenka’s continuous attempts to show the stability of his regime and the effectiveness of the Belarusian economic model, the truth is that Moscow’s support is behind all this. All of Lukashenka’s “stability” is, first of all, generous Russian loans, the Russian market for Belarusian products, and cheap Russian oil. For example, one of the primary sources of filling the Belarusian budget is preferential supplies of oil, which are turned into oil products at Belarusian refineries and sold already with a decent added value. Russia is the main market for about 90% of Belarusian agricultural exports. Most Belarusian companies are state-owned, so the well-being of a significant part of the local population depends on their stable work. The stability of state-owned companies is supported by subsidies from the state.

Given that Lukashenka does not have enough of his resources for such support, he is forced to seek financial help from Russia. And this financial help is a completely different story. For example, it ensures lower prices for gas and energy resources, which makes production more competitive even in industries where it is quite an energy intensive.

In addition, Moscow is the largest creditor of Minsk. For example, $8.3 billion out of $18.6 billion external debt was directly offset by Russian credit. Along with this, the Kremlin provides Lukashenka with a deferral of payments, both on Russian loans and the state debt of Belarus.

That is, the entire indicative stability of the Belarusian economy is completely dependent on handouts from Moscow, for which Lukashenka is paying for nothing more than the sovereignty of his state. And after February 24, this dependence only intensified, as did the dependence on the state of the Russian economy itself, which is far from the best of times.

As for the Belarusian dictator himself, before the presidential elections in 2020, he was still somehow able to play a strong and independent leader and demonstrate his autonomy from the Kremlin. However, in 2020 everything changed for him. Instead of transferring power in the country to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who defeated him, he decided to falsify the election results and usurp power. This provoked mass protests from the Belarusian population, which was already fed up with his “stability” and hoped that it would finally get rid of its long-term dictator. The only one who decided to help Lukashenka was Putin. He, on the one hand, saved him from the angry street, and on the other hand, became the actual master of his fate. Now Lukashenka fully ensures and serves Putin’s interests, and Belarus itself has become Russia’s military and political appendage. The only thing that the owner has not yet been able to achieve from his subordinate is the involvement of the Belarusian army in the war against Ukraine on the side of Russia.

A threat from Belarus

With the aggravation of the situation for Russia at the front, the Kremlin again began to consider a repeated land attack on Ukraine from Belarus. According to the Kremlin, this would create an additional threat to Kyiv, the logistics lines between Ukraine and its Western allies, as well as keep the Ukrainian forces there from being transferred closer to the front to reinforce the units operating there.

Talks about the possibility of new offensive actions from the Belarusian territory have been going on since the beginning of summer. And in the autumn, when the Russians again began to transfer their troops to Belarus, anxiety about a second offensive against Kyiv, or attempts to attack Volhynia and Polesia, only intensified.

According to Ukrainian military experts, to carry out a repeated full-scale invasion from Belarus, the Russians need to have at least 40 battalion tactical groups (BTGs), that is, at least 32-40 thousand military personnel. Those slightly more than 10 thousand Russian militaries who are in Belarus are about 11 BTGs, and, basically, without equipment. That is, now in Belarus there is no strike force that could carry out a second offensive against Ukraine. However, if the number of Russian troops in Belarus begins to increase significantly soon, then this will be an indicator that the Russians are preparing for offensive actions. If this does not happen, and the number of Russians remains the same as today, then all Russian activity there will mean the usual attempt to divert the attention of the Ukrainian army.

Along with talks about a possible second Russian offensive from Belarus, the question of the possible involvement of the Belarusian army in it has also become relevant. To understand how important a role it can play in a possible Russian offensive, one should look at what the modern Belarusian army is like. The manning of the Belarus armed forces is being held according to a mixed principle, that is, contract servicemen and conscripts. At the same time, contract servicemen are far from being the majority. For example, in the land forces there are 24% of them, in special forces – 20%, and in the special operations forces – only 12%. Units and formations of the Belarusian army are currently understaffed. However, even a fully equipped Belarusian army can provide no more than 20-25 thousand people for active operations. The main weapons of the Belarusian army are of Soviet origin, and the majority of the Belarusian military does not have a single combat experience.

According to some estimates, until recently, in the event of mobilization (which, by the way, is underway nowadays under the guise of training camps), Belarus could deploy 8 more tank and 14 mechanized battalions. However, an interesting point in this matter is that all these troops will need to fight with something, and the Belarusian military depots are being actively “cleaned out” today by the Russians, who are experiencing a severe ammunition shortage at the front.

In addition, more than likely, the Belarusian military is closely monitoring how the “world’s second army” is successfully utilized in Ukraine. Therefore, there is a big doubt that all of them will have the zeal to participate in a possible re-offensive of the Russians to Ukraine from Belarus if Putin does squeeze Lukashenka. According to the Ukrainian General Staff, only up to 13,000 servicemen from the active and former military units of the Belarusian special operations forces, as well as the OMON, are ready to participate in the war against Ukraine. At the same time, their main motivation is not “protecting Belarus from an aggressive neighbor”, as Belarusian propaganda constantly claims, but a banal material reward. However, low motivation, morale, and level of combat readiness are unlikely to contribute to the effectiveness of their actions in an attempt to occupy part of the Ukrainian territory.

If the Russians and Belarusians decide to attack from the territory of Belarus, then, unlike in February, they will be met in a completely different way. At present, a section of Ukrainian territory along the Belarusian border has been fortified. There are units of both the Ukrainian army and the territorial defense there. In the event of aggression, volunteer formations of territorial communities will also join them. All of the above forces are on alert. Combat coordination is constantly going on, various exercises are being held, and fortifications and lines are being strengthened. In addition, it should be understood that the vast majority of the territories of the regions bordering Belarus are covered with dense forests, impassable swamps, and rivers, which will create additional obstacles for Russians and Belarusians.

Why the Belarusian army has not yet entered the war 

Given all of the above, Lukashenka is well aware that if the Belarusian army invades Ukraine along with the Russians, then it has every chance to be destroyed there. Consequently, he recently once again stated that he does not see the need for the presence of Belarusian troops on the territory of Ukraine to help Russian soldiers and that their participation in the war against Ukraine will only make the situation worse. “This is complete nonsense. If we directly get involved in this conflict with armed forces, with manpower, we will not add anything to this, but, on the contrary, will make it worse. This is not the role of Belarus in this conflict,” Lukashenka said. Here, in general, we can agree with him, because indeed, the weak and unmotivated Belarusian army is not the force that can radically change the situation in the war in favor of the Russian troops. At the same time, it is worth noting that, speaking about the fact that the entry of his military into the war “will make it worse”, Lukashenka, first of all, has in mind the consequences for his regime. And probably for himself. After all, the death of thousands of Belarusian soldiers in Ukraine can significantly accelerate the end of both. The other part of the Belarusian army, instead of dying in Ukraine, can turn around and leave for Minsk to overthrow the dictator who dragged them into the war. In addition, it is more than certain that protests will erupt again in Belarus, but unlike in 2020, now on a much larger scale and with more unpredictable consequences, both for the regime and for the country itself. And that is why Lukashenka, as best he can, is trying to avoid sending his military to the war in Ukraine. In addition, there are processes underway in Belarus that will further reduce the potential of the Belarusian army. One of them is the already mentioned removal of ammunition from Belarusian arsenals to Russian units. In particular, over the past two months, Russia has been actively “pumping out” 122 mm and 152 mm ammunition from Belarus. It should not be ruled out that by generously supplying the Russians with ammunition, Lukashenka thus deliberately weakens the potential of his army. Because when Putin once again asks him to enter the war, Lukashenka will throw up his hands and say: “We gave you everything. What are we going to fight with?” 

Fall of the last bridge with the West 

However, one can be sure that Putin will continue to look for approaches to solving the “Lukashenka issue” to draw the Belarusian military into the war. And the recent unexpected death of the Belarusian MFA Vladimir Makei only plays into his hands. Makei was perhaps the only one of the entire Belarusian regime who continued to maintain contacts with the West and the one the West could talk to. That is, he was a kind of bridge between the West and Lukashenka, through which the latter transmitted his messages there – and maybe about the war and the participation of Belarus in it. After the death of Makei, Lukashenka has no other person of this level. Now there is a lot of talk around Makei’s death about whether it was natural, or he was somehow “helped” to leave this world. However, what matters is not so much what caused the death of the main Belarusian diplomat as the consequences it has for Lukashenka and his regime. And among the main ones is that now the already narrow field for Lukashenka’s foreign policy maneuvers has decreased even more. The Kremlin is well aware of this and will use it to the maximum to pressurize the Belarusian dictator and force him to enter the war with his army. 

In general, we can say that Lukashenka is now in a very difficult position. He and his regime are completely dependent on Moscow, although the protests are suppressed, the protest moods in Belarusian society have not gone away and can flare up at any moment, the last bridge with the West has collapsed, the Kremlin’s pressure on him is growing, and the opportunities to get out as before – has been lessening. And it is possible that in such conditions, Putin will pressurize him and he will give his military orders to enter the war. However, as in the case of the large-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, which marked the beginning of the end of the Putin regime, the participation of the Belarusian army in the war against Ukraine could significantly accelerate the collapse of the Lukashenka regime.

Igor Fedyk

Head of the South Eastern Europe Section

Igor coordinates the South Eastern Europe Section of the New Geopolitics Research Network. He previously worked as the Head of the Balkan section of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies, as well as the Deputy Editor-in-chief of the English-language magazine The Ukrainian Defense Review.

His current research interests are focused on the political, economic and social aspects of the development of the South Eastern Europe and Balkan countries, their interstate and inter-ethnic relations, as well as the relations with third parties (countries not from the region, international organizations), which have an important impact on the situation in the region and in Europe.

He is the author of a number of articles and analyses in various Ukrainian and foreign Media.

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December 2022
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