The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, is a fool. His countrymen know this well. They have lived under his rule for almost thirty years, and their country is poor and underdeveloped. Lukashenko used to wear with pride a title awarded to him by the international media, “Europe’s last dictator.” His most recent fiscal tactic, intended to fight inflation, has been to ban price increases by state decree. Obviously, he is not a deep thinker.
Lukashenko runs a state machine entirely dependent on Russia. But rather than cutting loose, as many former Soviet nations did after Russia launched its doomed invasion of Ukraine, Belarus has only drifted tighter into Moscow’s orbit. As Russian forces have suffered catastrophic losses, which would cause a revolution in almost any other country, Belarus has only partially demurred leaping headfirst into the morass of the Ukraine conflict.
Since the war began, Lukashenko has repeatedly hinted at his intention to invade Ukraine. In a televised meeting with his security council at the beginning of March, Lukashenko fabricated a Ukrainian attack on Belarus and showed off a map with joint Russian and Belarusian formations poised to invade Ukraine.
Belarus was a staging ground for one of Russia’s axis of advances into Ukraine in February, which began after joint military exercises held by both countries. As the war has progressed, Russia has launched military aircraft based in Belarus and Ukrainian officials claim that Russian missiles are frequently launched from Belarusian soil as well. Belarus is a participant in this war, just not as much as Russian president Vladimir Putin might like.
Throughout the conflict, Russian and Belarusian officials have fabricated provocations and apparent Ukrainian attacks against Belarus designed to gin up the public’s appetite for war. These have all been transparent pretexts that fell apart at close scrutiny. The people of Belarus are unmoved by these efforts. Polling in the country is close to impossible but the figures are stark. Most estimates say that up to 90 percent of Belarusians are implacably opposed to joining the conflict.
Nonetheless, this week Lukashenko announced the creation of a new joint Belarusian and Russian border force to thwart and deter what he characterized as military threats from both Ukraine and NATO. Putin has wanted to sacrifice Belarusian soldiers to give his forces a break and it seems Lukashenko has long wanted to participate, too.
Earlier in the conflict, the Belarusian dictator was prevented from joining the war by his generals and domestic opposition. The generals know that this would be a disaster given that Belarus has a weak military that can’t be deployed quickly. Most military analysts assess that Belarus could not send more than 7,000 men into Ukraine in the near term. Since Belarusian forces have never fought in a war, if they were deployed to the front, they would likely be defeated quickly and sent running. Making Belarus a party to the conflict would also risk Ukrainian attacks into Belarus that could fairly destroy massing formations of troops and critical military infrastructure.
The opposition is also a problem; they are determined, courageous, and willing to risk their lives. Belarus saw unprecedented protests and civil discontent after Lukashenko stole a presidential election in 2020 and it was only with heavy-handed police tactics and Russian backing that his regime survived. The people of Belarus don’t want a war, and many Belarusians—including those fighting for Ukraine—think that a military defeat would topple the regime.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition leader from whom Lukashenko stole that election, has led dissident Belarusian condemnation of Lukashenko’s push to join Putin’s war.
“Do not follow the regime’s criminal orders,” she said in a message directed to the country’s armed forces. “Refuse to participate in Putin’s war.”
But remember, Lukashenko is a fool and if his arm has been twisted enough by Putin, the decision to go to war is his alone.
Russia and Belarus are currently conducting more joint exercises under the “Union State” rubric, which joins the two countries in a de facto political union. (Amusingly, Lukashenko is the ceremonial president of this transparent Russian front, which serves to make Belarus its puppet.)
Whatever the official reason for the military exercises or a new border force, Russia is building up its forces in Belarus and hoping to force Ukraine to beef up its defenses in the north by threatening to attack Kyiv again.
After the rout of Russian forces assaulting Kyiv at the beginning of the war, Ukraine has left the defense of its capital in the hands of a screening force of irregulars and reserves while its professional army fights in the country’s east and south. There is no reason to presuppose another Russian thrust on the scale of that first attack and Ukrainian officials say they see no signs of one.
We don’t know the state of Russian forces in Belarus but the assumption of many NATO planners is that the formations currently in Belarus have been exhausted by combat and have suffered heavy losses. It seems they have been sent there not as an invasion force, but for a break.
However, as people have told me recently, just because it would be incredibly foolish for Belarus to invade Ukraine, that does not make it impossible. If anything, Lukashenko is the sort of fool to do it, reason be damned. I can do no better than the words of the anonymous British weapons analyst who tweets as @calibreobscura. He recently wrote, “Lukashenko launching any kind of attack would be completely stupid, but I guess that means they’ll do it.”
This piece was originally published in The National Interest.