Why Belarus matters for the Russia-Ukraine war

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belarus this week escalated concerns that he is seeking to drag the country into his war in Ukraine.

Both Russia and Ukraine have acknowledged they are expecting a long fight, and Putin’s high-profile trip to Minsk to meet Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko underscored the country’s role as a border state to both countries.

Analysts said Russia may actually try to push Belarus into the war, or it could merely be using the threat of the country’s involvement to spook Western nations and Ukraine.

David Marples, a professor at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies with the University of Alberta, said Putin likely increased pressure on Lukashenko to commit forces in Ukraine.

“Lukashenko has been resisting that ever since the war began,” he said.

Marples said the visit was especially significant because Putin “never bothered going” to Minsk in the past three years, including during turmoil in Belarus in 2020.

“Now Lukashenko has a little bit more leeway because Russia needs him as well,” he said, adding the Belarusian leader “may ultimately try to make some deal that would allow him to stay in power and keep a sovereign state and then perhaps commit troops .”

At a Monday press conference with Lukashenko, Putin said the leaders reviewed defense issues and “agreed to continue taking all necessary measures to ensure the security of our countries.”

Those include the continuation of joint drills and training as well as a new effort equipping Belarusian air force crews with “special warheads.”

“These coordinated measures are extremely important in view of the tensions at the external borders of the Union State,” Putin said, referring to Russia and Belarus.

Russia used Belarus as a staging ground early in the war. Since then, Russia has trained troops in Belarus, conducted joint drills with the Belarusian army and fired missiles into Ukraine from the country as part of a wave of rocket strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure and energy grids.

Experts say Lukashenko is unlikely to send troops to Ukraine at the moment, largely because it would be a deeply unpopular move at home, where he recently fended off an uprising against his government after the 2020 election.

A Chatham House poll in August found more than 90 percent of Belarus was against joining the war on the side of Russia. Around 27 percent in the poll supported complete neutrality in the war.

A Belarusian rebel brigade is also fighting for Ukrainian independence, so the Belarus army could end up clashing with its own people if it enters Ukraine.

It’s also unlikely that Belarus could change the tide of the war in Russia’s favor. As a much smaller nation than both Ukraine and Russia, it only has around 10,000 troops to readily commit.

The threat from Belarus alone is already a significant deterrent to Ukraine, said Mark Galeotti, the executive director of consulting firm Mayak Intelligence.

“The irony is Belarus is more useful as a threat than a military ally,” Galeotti said in an interview, saying the Belarusian army would get “chewed up” by Ukrainian forces. β€œIt’s more about keeping Ukrainians worried. The threat can do that without needing to carry through with it.”

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Putin’s meeting in Minsk was part of an ongoing Russian information operation to convince Ukraine and the West that Belarus would join the war effort.

“The Kremlin likely seeks to convince the West to accept a false fait accompli that Ukraine cannot materially alter the current front lines and that the war is effectively stalemated,” George Barros, a Russia researcher for the institute, told The Hill.

“ISW assesses that such a conclusion is inaccurate and that Ukraine stands a good chance of regaining considerable critical terrain in the coming months.”

Russia has faced heavy losses in Ukraine but Putin has continuously doubled down on the war, earlier this year mobilizing hundreds of thousands of reservists who are now starting to reinforce Moscow’s army.

Because of aggressive Western sanctions, Belarus heavily relies on Russia for its economy, including for gas and product exports.

The European Council on Foreign Relations said in an October blog post that Belarus may at some point decide the cost of not joining the war effort outweighs the cost of joining.

Belarus also appears to be slowly conceding to Russia’s push to establish military and political dominance over the country, said the ISW.

On Monday, Lukashenko said he placed on combat alert an S-400 air defense system he received from Russia, a defense system the Belarusian leader rejected in 2020.

Barros from the ISW said that indicated Lukashenko’s “maneuvering space to resist Russian efforts to absorb Belarus is decreasing.”

However, Marples said Russia needs to prove that joining the war would not be a losing proposition for the embattled Belarusian leader.

“I think he would like to see Russia do a little bit better in the war than they are so far before he did that, because no one wants to join a side that’s going to lose,” he said.

Marples said Putin is desperate for help and that a Belarusian commitment in Ukraine would ease up pressure on Russia’s own troops, some of whom have deserted. Russia has also seen some protests at home after Putin’s partial mobilization order.

Belarus would also help by creating a threat from the north to potentially divert Ukrainian forces, who are fighting primarily in the southern and eastern region of Ukraine against invading Russian troops.

But Galeotti said Putin has grown much weaker on the international stage since the war began and that heading into the Minsk meeting, Lukashenko had some leverage.

Ahead of the meeting with Putin, Lukashenko reaffirmed that Belarus was an independent nation and that Russia was not controlling the country, refuting what he called “whispers” in Belarus.

At the press conference with Putin, Lukashenko was asked by a reporter about suggestions that Belarus was being “absorbed” by Russia, noting the many meetings the leaders have held in the past year.

“Today, they will claim that Putin has arrived in order to scare someone here,” Lukashenko answered.

“You know, the two of us are co-aggressors, the meanest, most toxic people on this planet. The only issue we have between us is to determine who is bigger,” he added.

“President Putin tells me that I am, but I am beginning to think that he is. So we decided to stick together, as equals, and that’s it.”

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