Putin’s ally Lukashenko is unlikely to send Belarusian troops to Ukraine

Ukraine’s counteroffensive continues this week with Russian troops retaking territory. It is also a week when Belarus is conducting military exercises with the support of Russia. The maneuvers fueled speculation that Belarus could expand its support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Throughout the conflict, Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko has allowed Russia to use Belarus as a launch pad for hundreds of air strikes on Ukrainian targets. But Lukashenko has refrained from sending Belarusian troops to Ukraine.

Would Lukashenko change course and send Belarusian troops to support the Russian invasion? Here are four reasons why the likelihood of a military advance from Belarus or an incursion by the Belarusian army into Ukraine remains low.

A permanent Russian military presence is not in Lukashenko’s interest

Any Belarusian troops deployed to Ukraine would rely on Russian command infrastructure. Since the Russian army is already on Belarusian territory and the integration between Russia and Belarus is deepening, they are moving towards unification of the economies of the two countries military and political structures, a loss of 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 aid to support the crackdown on 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, Russian and Belarusian leaders endorsed a new joint military doctrine alongside wide-ranging agreements on economic and regulatory issues related to tax, banking, industry, agriculture and energy. Then, in February, Russia and Belarus held joint military exercises near Belarus’ border with Ukraine — which served as a pretext to move some 30,000 Russian troops into Belarusian territory in preparation for the February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

But Lukashenko has been actively demilitarizing 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. These steps free Lukashenko from mobilizing the Belarusian army to intervene directly alongside Russia in the war against Ukraine.

Such moves likely reflect Lukashenko’s skepticism about dropping the Belarusian army under Russian command if troops are deployed to Ukraine. That would allow Russia to establish a permanent military presence in Belarus, further weakening Lukashenko and putting Belarus firmly in Putin’s pocket.

The EU continues to impose sanctions on Belarus. Some Belarusians agree.

Sanctions have weakened Lukashenko’s support from domestic allies

Lukashenko remains in power. However, some of his close political insiders seem opposed to the decision to back Putin’s war on Ukraine. The protracted military conflict in Ukraine has led to continued sanctions pressure on the Belarusian economy and business leaders – including sanctions specifically targeting Belarusian military leaders.

In April, Lukashenko tried unsuccessfully to conduct secret negotiations with the West. On April 6, the Belarusian Foreign Minister sent a confidential letter calls on the countries of the European Union to abandon the sanctions policy and to resume dialogue with the Belarusian regime. The EU did not reply 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 take part in the war against Ukraine. According to a Chatham House poll conducted in August, just 5 percent of Belarusians supported sending troops to support Russia, while 2 percent wanted Belarus to side with Ukraine. About 70 percent of Belarusians said they did not want to take part in the conflict.

Lukashenko’s calls for peace reflect the preferences of a majority of the public. By keeping Belarusian troops out of the war, Lukashenko may defuse some of the widespread anger following the 2020 presidential election – reflected in months of protests against his fraudulent claim of victory.

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At the same time, Belarusians have 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 swore an oath to join the Ukrainian armed forces. Two months later, on May 21, the Kalinouski Battalion announced its expansion and conversion into a regiment.

Belarus cannot actually do without the troops

A majority of the troops serving in the Belarusian Army are conscripts – many soldiers are probably just interested in serving their time. Belarus’ active workforce is around 45,500 (less than 1 percent of the total population), of which about 25 percent work as contractors.

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A conscript army remains largely a citizen army – meaning many conscripts share public dissatisfaction with the Lukashenko regime. It is likely that the Belarusian military is aware that any troops deployed to Ukraine are either refusing to serve or want to defect.

Belarusian special forces, an estimated group of 4,000 to 6,000 officers, play an important role at home. In 2020, these forces, together with the police, actively participated in the crackdown on mass protests after the presidential election. Two years later, Belarusian special forces provide a powerful deterrent to public protests. Lukashenko cannot afford to abandon these troops as they ensure his power.

With little room to maneuver between East and West and Belarus’ military far weaker than Russia’s, Lukashenko appears to have little 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 strong awareness of the need to keep his distance from Russia and the military setbacks Putin’s army has suffered.

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Tatsiana Kulakevich is Assistant Professor of Instruction at the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies and Research Fellow at the Institute for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies at the University of South Florida. Follow her on Twitter @DrKulakevich.

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