As the international community focuses on the tense dialogue between Moscow and Washington over the Ukrainian conflict, the situation in Belarus is deteriorating. Since the start of mass protests in Belarus in August 2020, the power of Aliaksandr Lukashenka – the leader of the country – has rested on two pillars. The first is the support of the security forces and the loyal nomenklatura; the second is the support of the Kremlin. However, this Russian support, like cheese in a mousetrap, has its price. In exchange for financial and political aid, Lukashenko is gradually being forced to make Belarus more dependent on its eastern neighbor.
In response to the political crisis, Lukashenka signed a set of symbolic integration agreements with Moscow, recognized Crimea as Russian territory, suspended Belarus’ membership of the Eastern Partnership and redirected some export flows to Russian ports. . He did almost everything to please the Russia he had avoided for many years.
However, Lukashenka’s favorite trick with the Kremlin is to engage in anti-Western rhetoric and enhanced military cooperation with Russia. In response to rising tensions between Russia and the West, he has sought to demonstrate his loyalty to Putin by threatening to station Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus, promising to fight Ukraine if necessary and agreeing to drills. joint military with Russia. Such rhetoric cannot greatly worsen his relationship with the West, given that the West is more dead than alive. The Kremlin, of course, is happy to hear it. And, unlike the structural economic and political integration between Belarus and Russia, such rhetoric costs Lukashenka little. After Russian tanks pass through Belarusian soil during military exercises, Moscow will likely receive a hefty bill from Minsk for these allied services.
For Russia, deploying larger forces to Belarus for maneuvers is a practical way to increase pressure on Ukraine. While these maneuvers are to be carried out from February 10 to 20, the troops of the Eastern Military District of Russia are already arrived in Belarus. Russia has deployed these troops not only near the border with Ukraine, but also in other regions of Belarus far from where the exercises are to take place. Russian forces have brought an unprecedented amount of military equipment to Belarus. However, it remains unclear whether Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to invade Ukraine again. In all likelihood, his plans remain a mystery even to Lukashenko.
This deployment of Russian troops complicates Ukraine’s defensive preparations, as it forces the Ukrainian military to also prepare for a possible invasion from Belarus, further stretching its forces. Even in the event of a limited war, the scattering of defensive forces across Ukraine would make it more difficult and time-consuming for Kiev to react to another Russian invasion – which would occur where and when Putin chose. If Russia launched an all-out war against Ukraine and occupied the entire country, these forces would prevent the Ukrainian civil resistance movement from establishing supply lines through Belarus to Poland.
However, in response to one of Moscow’s demands, Lukashenka recently proposed a new constitution. And elements of this proposal suggest that he does not want Belarus to be directly involved in Russia’s war against Ukraine. As he plans to remove an existing constitutional clause on Belarus’ commitment to neutrality and its ban on harboring nuclear weapons, he wants to include a provision stating that “military aggression of the territory of the Republic of Belarus against other States is excluded”. He aims to hold a referendum on those changes — or, more accurately, engage in a performance that simulates the will of the people — on February 27. Lukashenka said that the outbreak of war could lead to the postponement of the referendum. Given that he is not too keen on the idea of a new constitution, the military situation could provide him with an excuse to delay the referendum.
Moscow can be expected to maintain some level of military presence in Belarus after the current crisis. The Russian military has established four airbases, a surface-to-air missile base, and about 30 storage sites around the country to house reinforcements in case of conflict. Prior to August 2020, Belarus strictly limited Russia’s use of these sites to scheduled maneuvers. But that changed thanks to the collapse of Lukashenko’s legitimacy and his growing need for Russian help, which allowed Moscow to use these facilities almost as it wanted.
Officially, there is no permanent Russian military presence in Belarus of any size. But Moscow could seek to establish a permanent military presence there on a rotational basis – as a way of mirroring, more aggressively, the permanent rotation of NATO forces in Eastern Europe as part of its enhanced forward presence. The constant military movements this implied would generate some nervousness in the West. To push NATO to abandon its enhanced forward presence, Moscow could combine provocative action with the argument that Russia will station its military in Belarus if NATO does not withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe. Such an offer would be particularly threatening to NATO countries in Eastern Europe – who are watching with concern Russia’s rapid military build-up around Ukraine, knowing that only support from the United States and other allies can protect them from such force.
Regardless of Russia invading Ukraine again, Belarusian territory will increasingly become a source of military threats to all of its western neighbors – not just Ukraine. In his desperation to please the Kremlin, Lukashenka risks setting fire to his country’s independence.
Europeans must be careful not to lose sight of this broad erosion of security and political order in the East, even if Russia does not launch a new major offensive against Ukraine. Although the West has stronger leverage to preserve Ukraine’s independence, it should not agree to changes in Belarus’ status. Within the limited range of options available to it, the West should try to resist the gradual absorption of Belarus by Russia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of its individual authors only.