Belarus has served as a springboard for Russia’s war against Ukraine from the outset. Russian forces invaded Ukraine from Belarus, despite prior assurances by top Belarusian officials that this would not happen, and the country has continuously provided logistical support, supply lines and medical care for Russian soldiers. Russian military aircraft have used Belarusian airfields, and as of mid-September, Russia had launched at least 717 missiles from Belarus. According to a group of independent Belarusian monitors, from March until September Belarus also sent to Russia over 65,000 tonnes of ammunition, about 100 Soviet-era tanks (the likes of TM-72A) and approximately 20 armoured vehicles.
Following the announcement last October by Belarus’ president Aliaksandr Lukashenka, of the deployment of a Joint Regional Military Group, many Russian soldiers flocked to Belarus. Most of them appeared to be mobilised reservists (approximately 10,000 at a peak time in December), who underwent training by Belarusian senior officers.
Russia has also been moving scores of weapons and other military equipment in and out of Belarus. Among the units remaining in Belarus are S-400 air-defence and Iskander and Top M2 missile systems, as well as fighter jets and other military aircraft, including the MiG-31K, fitted with Kinzhal missiles that are capable of reaching targets 2,000 km away.
In a similar pattern to that which preceded the war, the two countries have also carried out joint military exercises in Belarus, first air and then ground operations. Belarusian and Russian troops were rumoured even to have been mixed in preparation for joint fighting in Ukraine. The Belarusian authorities also called up reservists to enlistment offices, with the official explanation given for this being to update their military records.
None of this necessarily signals that Belarus is planning to join the war or lend its territory to a new offensive. Another attack on Kyiv looks currently unlikely. In theory, however, Russian troops could attack Western Ukraine from Belarus with a view to cutting off supplies of Western weapons and ammunition. But with the Russian soldiers trained in Belarus appearing to have left for the Donbas, the estimated 5,000 remaining would be insufficient for a fresh offensive.
In theory, however, Russian troops could attack Western Ukraine from Belarus with a view to cutting off supplies of Western weapons and ammunition. Katia Glod
Yet such military posturing by Belarus has compelled Ukraine to watch its northern neighbour closely. Ukrainian forces have fortified and mined territory close to Belarus, and blown up some bridges. Rather than concentrating all its forces in the east and south of the country, Ukraine has kept around 20,000 troops along the Belarusian border.
Domestically, public opinion is a strong factor pulling Lukashenka away from direct involvement in the war. Only a third of Belarusians support Russia’s war, whilst 93% oppose a potential deployment of Belarusian soldiers to fight in Ukraine. Just 18% believe that Belarusian soldiers would fight properly, rather than look for ways of avoiding battle.
Russia’s losses on the battlefield have strengthened this view. High-ranking military officers told an independent news outlet anonymously that Belarusian armed forces’ deep belief in the prowess and superiority of the Russian army had crumbled.
Apart from low morale, Belarusian troops also lack combat experience and are small in numbers. Whilst some 45,000 are on the books, no more than 10,000 are professionally trained and relatively well-equipped, and even they are unlikely to be suitable for largescale warfare. Sending them to fight in Ukraine would also leave the Belarusian president with no reliable army in Minsk to protect him. Several Belarusian army units had to be mobilised in 2020 to help put down the mass protests following the fraudulent presidential election.
A general draft would pose high political risks for Lukashenka. Considering the public’s aversion to the war, and the probability that Belarusian troops would become cannon fodder, support for the Belarusian president, already below 30%, would plummet further. A lot of men would want to flee mobilisation, but would be unable to on account of the lack of a shared border with a visa-free country. Their anger and frustration would augment public discontent.
A lot of men would want to flee mobilisation, but would be unable to on account of the lack of a shared border with a visa-free country. Their anger and frustration would augment public discontent. Katia Glod
The Belarusian opposition might exploit the situation to re-ignite public protests. Some opposition forces are already showing more appetite for non-peaceful resistance, after civilian protests in 2020 failed to bring about political change. The Transitional Cabinet, led by the leader of Belarus’ democratic movement, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, is supporting a network of volunteers ready for a mass uprising against the regime and “Russian occupation.” A number of Belarusians – estimates range from a few hundred to a few thousand – are fighting on the side of the Ukrainian army are also working on a plan to “free Belarus.” A popular uprising in Belarus could be dangerous for Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, too, by eliminating one of his closest allies and inspiring political turmoil within Russia.
War is inherently unpredictable. Even if Putin might now believe that Belarusian troops would be more of a liability than an asset in his war, this could change at any moment. If Putin felt desperate or threatened, as the West stepped up the supply of weapons to Ukraine, or Ukrainian armed forces staged a successful counter-offensive, he might reconsider opening a new front from Belarus.
In such a scenario, Putin would have the means to twist Lukashenka’s arm. Putin backed the Belarusian president after he lost legitimacy in the fraudulent 2020 election. Russia has also taken up about 30% of the trade that Belarus had with the EU but was destroyed by Western sanctions. Belarusian industry and households rely on cheap Russian gas and discounted oil.
Wishing to avoid a public backlash against sending troops, Lukashenka could provide covert help to Russia. A former high-ranking homeland forces officer who is now a member of the opposition United Cabinet, has alleged that an equivalent of the infamous Wagner group has been set up in Belarus. Apparently “Gardservice” has received special permission to possess live ammunition. Over recent months it has allegedly recruited over a thousand former soldiers. They are now being trained in Belarus, some of them by Wagner mercenaries.
Wishing to avoid a public backlash against sending troops, Lukashenka could provide covert help to Russia. A former high-ranking homeland forces officer who is now a member of the opposition United Cabinet, has alleged that an equivalent of the infamous Wagner group has been set up in Belarus. Katia Glod
Lukashenka might also claim that Ukraine, or NATO forces, are about to attack Belarus, and even enlist Russia’s help in staging such a provocation. Last October, he claimed that “NATO and a number of European countries wanted to drag Belarus into the war to settle scores with both Belarus and Russia.” Top Belarusian officials have already gone to factories and other state-owned companies, telling workers that that the war could spread, and that Belarus should therefore act proactively to defend itself. In such a scenario, the deployment of Belarusian troops to Ukraine “for defence purposes” might even be supported publicly, particularly by the roughly 40% of the population who consume state media.
However unlikely, the possibility of Ukraine striking back at Belarus should not be ruled out. Ukrainian military experts say that in the event of a new Russian assault, Ukraine might target enemy units regardless of their location. That could create panic in Belarus and might lead to a new wave of refugees for Europe to worry about.
Last December, Putin hinted that Russia was training Belarusian pilots to fly aircraft fitted with nuclear warheads. Although Lukashenka has threatened the West with a nuclear strike, it is highly unlikely that the Russian president would share control over nukes, let alone with such an unpredictable ally as Lukashenka.
Having severed ties with the West, the Belarusian president is finding it increasingly difficult to conduct foreign policy independently from Russia. Anti-war sentiment and the risk of potential instability at home, combined with minimal military capabilities, have allowed him to shun direct involvement in the war. However, a changing situation on the battlefield could tip the balance towards intervention. Policymakers need to work out how they would respond to the conflict spreading.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.