Would Lukashenko back down and send Belarusian troops to help the Russian invasion? Here are four reasons why the likelihood of a military advance by Belarus or the invasion of Ukraine by the Belarusian military remains low.
A permanent Russian military presence is not in Lukashenko’s interest
All Belarusian troops sent to Ukraine would rely on the Russian command infrastructure. With the Russian army already on Belarusian territory and the deepening of integration between Russia and Belarus towards the unification of the economies of the two countries and military and political structures, losing control is not in Lukashenko’s interest.
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In 1999, Lukashenko signed an agreement with Russian President Boris Yeltsin to create a political and economic union between the two countries. The agreement was never fully implemented. However, Belarus’ integration with Russia has deepened significantly since 2020, when Russian President Vladimir Putin sent assistance to help crack down large-scale election protests in Belarus. Lukashenko’s acceptance of Russian help to quell the protests marked a turning point in his attempts to strike a balance between East and West.
In November 2021, alongside far-reaching agreements on economic and regulatory issues related to taxation, banking, industry, agriculture and energy, Russian and Belarusian leaders approved a new common military doctrine. Then, in February, Russia and Belarus held joint military exercises near the Belarusian border with Ukraine – which served as a pretext to move some 30,000 Russian troops into Belarusian territory in preparation for the invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine on February 24.
But Lukashenko has actively demilitarized the Belarusian army since the invasion, handing over military equipment and ammunition to Putin. In August, Russia received over 12,000 tons of ammunition from Belarus. By distributing ammunition, Lukashenko reduces the threat of seeing the Belarusian army intervene in the war against Ukraine on the side of Russia.
Such moves likely reflect Lukashenko’s wariness of letting the Belarusian army come under Russian command, if troops are sent to Ukraine. This would give Russia the opportunity to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus, which would further weaken Lukashenko and place Belarus firmly in Putin’s pocket.
The EU continues to sanction Belarus. Some Belarusians agree.
Sanctions weakened Lukashenko’s support from domestic allies
Lukashenko continues to cling to power. However, some of his close political insiders appear to oppose Putin’s decision to back the war on Ukraine. The protracted military conflict in Ukraine has resulted in continued sanctions pressure on the Belarusian economy and business leaders – including sanctions that specifically target Belarusian military leaders.
In April, Lukashenko unsuccessfully attempted to conduct secret negotiations with the West. On April 6, the Belarusian foreign minister sent a confidential letter asking the countries of the European Union to abandon the policy of sanctions and to re-establish dialogue with the Belarusian regime. The EU did not respond and the letter was leaked to the media.
Russia’s war is not popular in Belarus
A majority of Belarusians do not want their country to participate in the war against Ukraine. According to a Chatham House poll in August, only 5% of Belarusians supported sending troops to support Russia, while 2% wanted Belarus to side with Ukraine. About 70% of Belarusians indicated their refusal to engage in the conflict.
Lukashenko’s calls for peace reflect the preferences of a majority of the public. Keeping Belarusian troops out of the war allows Lukashenko to defuse some of the widespread anger following the 2020 presidential election – reflected in months of protests over his fraudulent claim to victory.
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At the same time, Belarusians also expressed their solidarity with Ukraine. For example, on March 26, some 200 Belarusian volunteers joined a battalion named after Kastus Kalinouski, a 19th-century Belarusian writer and revolutionary, and took an oath to join the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Two months later, on May 21, the Kalinoski Battalion announced its expansion and transformation into a regiment.
Belarus can’t really spare the troops
The majority of soldiers who serve in the Belarusian army are conscripts doing compulsory military service – many soldiers are probably only interested in serving their sentence. The active staff of Belarus numbers about 45,500 people (less than 1% of the total population), of which about 25% serve as contractors.
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A conscript army remains largely a citizen army — meaning many conscripts share the public’s dissatisfaction with Lukashenko’s regime. It is likely that the Belarusian military is well aware that any troops sent to join the fight in Ukraine may well refuse to serve or seek to defect.
Belarusian special operations forces, a group estimated at between 4,000 and 6,000 officers, play an important role in the country. In 2020, together with the police, these forces took an active part in suppressing mass protests after the presidential election. Two years later, Belarusian special forces are providing a powerful deterrent to public protests. Lukashenko cannot afford to abandon these troops as they ensure his grip on power.
With little room for maneuver between East and West and the Belarusian military far weaker than Russia’s, Lukashenko appears to have no choice but to follow Putin’s orders. However, Lukashenko’s reluctance to send Belarusian troops to Ukraine reflects his desire to continue his 28-year rule – and a keen awareness of the need to maintain his distance from Russia and the military setbacks suffered by Putin’s army.
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Tatsiana Kulakevich is an assistant teaching professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies and a research fellow at the Institute of Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of South Florida. Follow her on Twitter @DrKulakevich.