May 15, 2023 - 2:30pm

The appearance of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at Victory Day commemorations in Moscow last week provoked speculation over his health. His hand bandaged, the autocratic leader had to be transported the short distance to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and skipped a lunch hosted by Vladimir Putin in order to hurry back to Minsk. Lukashenko subsequently failed to deliver his traditional Victory Day speech or attend today’s National Flag, Emblem and Anthem Day celebrations, with Belarusian media claiming that he was in hospital on Saturday.

The source of Lukashenko’s difficulties remains unknown — opposition politician Pavel Latushko has suggested he may be suffering from a severe viral infection. However, what can be assumed is that, having dominated Belarusian politics since 1994, the death or incapacitation of the former collective farm manager would spark a power struggle.

Lukashenko seems to have primed his youngest son, Nikolai, for power, having brought him to the UN and meetings with world leaders. Yet, at just 18, it is unlikely that he would be ready to take up the reins of government. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and other exiled opposition leaders may consider this an opportunity to return home, while Lukashenko has previously tipped ex-interior minister Yuri Karayev and former health minister Vladimir Karanik as potential successors.

However, any candidate must contend with Putin’s ambitions. The Russian President would most likely be glad to be free of Lukashenko, given their strained personal relations over the years, not least due to Belarusian leader’s habit of holding out on granting concessions sought by Russia.

What’s more, Lukashenko’s demise or retirement could hasten the timetable for a Russian hybrid operation aimed at the takeover of Belarus. In February, a leaked document reportedly created in 2021 by the Kremlin’s Directorate for Cross-Border Cooperation discussed plans to merge Russia and Belarus into a single Moscow-controlled union state by 2030, constituting a total takeover of Belarus’s political, economic and military spheres.

For his part, Lukashenko conceded that the document “might have been” drafted by Kremlin officials at a time of bilateral discussions on areas of integration, and that some in the Russian Government may well have proposed such an idea, as “there were different points of view. Some said this way and some said that way”.

The exertion of influence on Belarus is facilitated by the presence of Russian troops on the country’s territory. While Lukashenko has thus far managed to avoid Belarus being dragged into Russia’s war in Ukraine, he permitted the country to be used as a staging post for the invasion, provided munitions for the Russian military and agreed to the country becoming a base for Russian nuclear weapons. In February, he threatened that, should it be attacked, Belarus is “ready to wage war, alongside the Russians”.

If Russia were to now gain sufficient control over Belarus to bring the nation into the war, it would offer Putin 48,000 troops from the Belarusian army. However, there is potential beyond that — in February, State Secretary of the Belarusian Security Council Alexander Volfovich said that a transition to a war economy and declaration of martial law could provide up to 1.5 million military personnel outside of the armed forces, while in the same month Lukashenko ordered the formation of a territorial defence force numbering up to 150,000 volunteers.

Any attempt by Putin to exploit the Belarusian population for his geopolitical ambitions would hinge upon quelling resistance in the country — Chatham House has found that only 3% support joining the conflict on Russia’s side and there is already strong Belarusian partisan activity aimed at sabotaging the war effort. However, Putin may consider it a worthwhile gambit, in keeping with the Kremlin’s strategy of recruiting far from Moscow and St Petersburg to avoid aggravating the elites there.

In 2020, Lukashenko survived the unprecedented wave of popular protests contesting his rule thanks to his neighbour’s backing. Now, as the Belarusian dictator’s health appears to fail, his departure could help Putin shore up the war effort.