Belarus is expected to continue providing support to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This includes supplies of arms, repairs of damaged military vehicles, treatment of wounded. It is also possible some of Russia’s newly mobilised troops may undergo training in Belarus, using Belarusian armed forces’ resources, as reported by Latvia’s Constitution Protection Bureau (SAB).
On Tuesday, 18 October, SAB published the second in a series of analytical articles dedicated to publicly important topics. In it SAB explains the situation in Belarus and its role in Russian-Ukrainian conflict, as well as how it will affect Latvia.
After elections in Belarus in 2020, Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime violently cracked down on protests. In summer 2021 Belarus is believed to have manipulated an influx of illegal migrants across Latvian, Lithuania and Polish borders. Since February 2022 Belarus has been actively supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. By doing this Belarus has refused to normalise relations with the west and has instead decided to end up under Russia’s military, economic and political influence.
Aleksandr Lukashenko’s desire to retain his status as the leader in Belarus and Russia’s role indicate he is not interested in holding talks with political opposition and implementation of democratic reforms in the country.
The latter was one of the conditions in order to normalise relation with western countries.
In the context of military factors, Belarusian armed forces have traditionally cooperated with Russian armed forces in different military exercises. This includes ZAPAD exercises four years in a row and annual trilateral Slavic Brotherhood exercises.
For those exercises Belarus sends mostly their elite forces, which are the minority of their total armed forces. Special operations units were used to suppress the protests that broke out in Belarus after the Presidential Elections of 2020. They also participated in suppression of protests in Kazakhstan in January 2022.
Aside from elite special forces, Belarusian military lack combat experience, which limits their practical usefulness in a war.
Belarusian armed forces have access to a wide range of weaponry. The core consists of USSR-era technology. Depreciation and deviations from maintenance requirements significantly reduce the number of practical armaments.
The topic of Belarus and the involvement of their army in the conflict in Ukraine remains open in the context of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Belarus is considered a close military ally of Russia. This allowed Russia to station armed forces in this country’s territory before the invasion, commence the invasion on land, launch missiles to strike at targets in Ukraine, as well as use infrastructure to supply and support Russian forces. However, until now Belarusian armed forces have not been directly involved in warfare in Ukraine.
It is expected that Belarus will continue providing support to Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, including supplies of arms, maintenance of military vehicles, medical treatment of wounded troops. It is also allowed that troops mobilised in Russia may undergo training in Belarus, using Belarusian armed forces’ resources.
Support from Belarus would help Russia save resources and continue intimidation tactics against Ukraine and the western world.
When it comes to direct participation in warfare in Ukraine, political elite in Belarus have to understand that military failures may reduce support for Lukashenko in the military circles. This support is vital to ensuring political stability in the country. Involvement of Belarusian armed forces in the war would also mean weakening the country’s internal security situation, including the ability to ensure security along the external border. At the same time, there is no reason to assume armed forces in Belarus are prepared to rebel against the ruling regime. In this case there is a possibility Russian armed forces could be used to suppress resistance.
Balarus has started its own mobilisation, and a joint Russian-Belarusian army force is being composed. Military exercises continue with Russian armed forces. The presence of Belarusian forces in border regions keeps increasing.
Currently the main function of Belarusian armed forces is intimidation and diversions with the goal of attracting attention of Ukrainian forces and taking away resources from warfare in eastern and southern parts of the country.
A part of this intimidation tactic is also aimed at the European Union and NATO member states. If Belarusian armed forces join the war against Ukraine, it is expected they would be deployed in western regions in Ukraine to block the roads used to deliver arms from western countries. This does not exclude demonstration of strength or provocations along the western Belarusian border.
In February amendments were added to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus. These amendments permit the storage of nuclear arms within the country’s territory. In August Lukashenko’s regime announced that Belarus has nuclear capabilities.
Lukashenko’s rhetoric is therefore expected to contain more nuclear threats addressed to the west and as affirmation to the nation of Belarus in an effort to reaffirm the country’s deterrence capabilities and Lukashenko’s status in the government of Belarus. Russia benefits the most from Belarus dropping the ‘nuclear-free one’ status, as this opens up more threats on NATO’s eastern flank. This also serves as an additional element of Vladimir Putin’s and other Russian officials’ nuclear blackmail rhetoric.
As for political opposition in Belarus, SAB reports they are suppressed and internally fractured.
There are fractures within the opposition in the country, as there is opposition that focuses on the economic situation and the war in Ukraine. There is also opposition that is in favour of more western pressure on Minsk to weaken Lukashenko’s ability to maintain its repressive apparatus. In a situation of a war and international isolation, Russia’s ability to provide financial aid to Belarus are limited. This may influence Minsk to seek common ground with differently minded residents.
There are some parts of Belarusian society that are in favour of sabotaging their own country’s transport infrastructure and joining the war on Ukraine’s side against Russia.
The war in Ukraine opens up the way for more counter-opposition measures in Belarus. These measures can be justified with protection of national interests and sovereignty. Public opinions were the main reason why Belarus avoids joining the war. Sociological survey data indicates that the absolute majority of residents of Belarus are against their country taking part in the war and letting Russian armed forces stay in Belarus. Economic cooperation with Russia without political or military ties with this country is important for many residents. This indicates residents want to maintain stability, neutrality or even distance from the Russian-Ukrainian war, SAB notes.
On a political level Lukashenko personally and his regime are in a complicated situation.
On the one hand Lukashenko’s regime has ended up in isolation from the west and has increased ties with Russia since August 2020. On the other hand, Lukashenko is looking for ways to maintain Belarusian sovereignty, political autonomy and secure his leading position in Belarus. In order to accomplish this, there are attempts to intensify cooperation with other CIS countries and indicate to western countries that Belarus remains neutral. This is intended to soften western sanctions.
In the current situation, normalisation of relations between Belarus and western countries is unlikely, because there haven’t been any positive developments with the situation that previously caused relations to heat up – the regime in Belarus continues repressions against residents, continues organising influx of illegal migrants on the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian borders, as well as continues supporting Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.
Lukashenko has little room to maneuver with relations with Russia. Military cooperation ensures continued presence of Russian armed forces, limiting Minsk’s political autonomy. Financial loans and resources provided by Russia are necessary to ensure stability of the regime. At the same time, Russia does not need immediate integration of Belarus into Russia’s territory because Lukashenko’s support already provides the necessary support. Political and military ties with Russia are not perceived unambiguously. Lukashenko’s legitimacy is put in doubt, this means there is a potential of social and political unrest.
According to SAB, Belarus has taken an aggressive course towards Latvia and other Baltic States.
This is reflected in Lukashenko’s public rhetoric, in which he describes Baltic States as threats, and continued hybrid operation involving sending illegal migrants across the Belarusian-EU borders. This risk remains very high, especially for Latvia and Lithuania.
Looking from the perspective of Baltic States, military-wise Belarus is considered part of Russia. Joint military exercises, potential training of Russian recruits, deployment of nuclear arms and provision of infrastructure and industrial capacity to be used to assist in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – all of these factors indicate the Belarusian military sector is being freely used by Russia.
Western sanctions and reorientation of Belarusian exports towards Russian transit infrastructure will make the country’s economy more dependent on Russia. According to analysis from SAB – economic considerations may motivate certain Belarusian companies to start looking for alternative transit ways, including through Poland and Baltic States.
Generally, according to SAB, Belarus can be considered an authoritarian country fully dependent in Russia.
Lukashenko’s regime supports Kremlin’s slogans about threats coming from NATO. This allows him to demonstrate his loyalty. While in the past some Baltic States had hope Belarus would find its place as an EU Eastern Partnership member state, for example, now Belarus should be considered a threat to the region, similarly to Russia.