ZOiS Spotlight 33/2022

Belarus’s Role in Russia’s War Against Ukraine

by Nadja Douglas 02/11/2022
Belarusian ruler Lukashenka (centre) inspects the Russian-Belarusian joint military exercise Zapad-2021. IMAGO / Xinhua

‘If you want peace, you must prepare for war.’ With this, his all-time favourite phrase, Belarusian ruler Aliaksandr Lukashenka attempted in a security meeting on 10 October to justify the formation of a joint regional group of Russian and Belarusian armed forces. His explanation was that Ukraine would be not only ‘discussing but [also] planning strikes on Belarusian territory’. Seven days later, the Belarusian defence ministry announced joint military exercises to be held as part of the regional grouping.

For months, the Belarusian regime has been sending conflicting signals about its position on the Russian war against Ukraine. On the one hand, Lukashenka parrots the Kremlin’s aggressive rhetoric against Ukraine and the West and allows Russian forces to use Belarusian territory as a rear base. On the other hand, he does not tire of claiming that Belarus has a merely defensive stance. Political experts and the international media have been discussing the question of whether Belarus could become a party to the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. Looking at the record of Russian-Belarusian military cooperation helps assess the robustness of this relationship today.

Russian-Belarusian military cooperation

Since the early 1990s, the defence union within the Union State of Russia and Belarus has been the lowest common denominator in the relationship between the two states. Even in the frostiest times, adherence to joint military exercises, such as Zapad (West) and Shchit Soyuza (Union Shield), has been the central pillar of strategic relations. The union provides for the coordination of defence guidelines, mutual military assistance, and the unification of the two countries’ military legislation. In the early 2000s, Russia and Belarus created a joint supreme air command and an armed regional group as a component of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. This group has so far existed only on paper but is now the subject of ongoing discussions.

In 2022, the situation changed considerably. The Union State’s new military doctrine entered into force. Observers have noted that the doctrine, which was released before the two countries’ joint military exercise Soyuznaya Reshimost (Allied Resolve) in February, foreshadowed both the exercise and the impending war in Ukraine. In addition, Belarusian constitutional changes in February not only allowed Russian troops to be stationed permanently in Belarus but also made the country give up its non-nuclear status, effectively voiding Belarus’s observance of its obligations under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. As a result, Lukashenka had to set aside his long-standing reluctance to host a permanent Russian air defence base on Belarusian territory. The Prybytki air base at the Belarusian-Ukrainian border, among others, came under Russian control in July 2022.

Likelihood of a Belarusian intervention

Ever since Lukashenka announced the formation of the regional grouping, there have been reports about Russian troops and equipment arriving in Belarus, with the Belarusian defence ministry expecting up to 9,000 Russian soldiers. There are indications that Belarus has agreed to help train Russian recruits in newly created joint military training centres. Moreover, the combat readiness of units has been tested and travel restrictions have been imposed on members of the security services, notably conscripts and reservists.

All this notwithstanding, there are good reasons for Minsk’s reluctance to become an active party to the war. First, the conditions for an intervention into Ukraine from the north would be even more adverse now than they were in February. Ukraine has taken precautions in the past few months to secure its border with Belarus: areas of Volyn oblast, for example, have been mined, and bridges have been blown up.

Second, the Belarusian army has been neglected for many years, while Lukashenka focused on investing in domestic security. As a consequence, the Belarusian armed forces are understaffed and lack combat experience. Most importantly, though, the loyalty and morale of troops fighting in an unpopular war would probably be low.

Third, both Lukashenka and Russian president Vladimir Putin know that Belarus’s involvement bears a significant risk of destabilising the country. At least 53 per cent of the Belarusian population rejects the idea of participating in the war with Ukraine. Acts of sabotage, like the guerrilla war on Belarusian railways in recent months, could not be ruled out. There would also be additional Western sanctions looming that would further worsen the economic situation in the country. Therefore, there is much to suggest that current Belarusian-Russian endeavours are geared towards building up a threat posture with the purpose of binding Ukrainian forces in the north.

Possible options for Belarus

Lukashenka is under immense pressure from Putin to fulfil his obligations as Russia’s closest political and military ally. Lukashenka has therefore engaged in a tightrope walk, which might be more difficult to pursue the longer the war lasts. Most of his recent announcements have been a step towards appeasing Putin and a bid to play for time to prevent Belarusian troops from having to become engaged on Ukrainian territory. Another ‘provocation’, such as the Kerch Strait Bridge bombing on 8 October or attempts by Ukraine to reconquer the recently annexed territories in eastern and southern Ukraine, would, strictly speaking, invoke Belarus’s mutual-assistance obligation under the defence union. On the battlefield, Belarusian forces would not make a big difference, but in the Kremlin’s rationale, implicating Belarus in the war and making it a partner in crime might be a game changer for Russia’s own morale.

Whatever option Lukashenka chooses, Belarus has already lost. Because of its indirect support for Russia, the regime could already be regarded as a party to the war and president Lukashenka potentially (provided that he would lose his immunity as head of state) be held responsible for war crimes before a UN special tribunal. If Lukashenka agrees to join forces with Russia in an offensive against Ukraine, the consequence might be the destabilisation of Belarus on several levels, which could effectively determine the course of the war. Even if Lukashenka manages to keep his country out of the war, the price will be high in terms of Belarus gradually losing its military, economic, and political sovereignty in trade-offs with Russia.

Nadja Douglas is a researcher at ZOiS.