Faltering Lukashenko presents an opportunity for Putin
His rumoured illness could boost Russia's war effort
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.
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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.
Does Russia have the resources to annex Belarus? From a practical standpoint, this would seem to be a challenging task in peacetime, let alone when Russia’s military and other resources are severely stretched in Ukraine. From a Belarussian perspective, might this be a relatively beneficial time for a leadership change, when Russia is overcommitted in Ukraine and less able to interfere in Belarusian politics?
I think it far more likely that Lukashenko’s incapacitation or death may spark first a disputed handover and then renewed attempts by opposition leaders to establish themselves in country. Lukashenko has kept Belarus out of the Ukraine war as he knows his people do not support it. If Putin attempts to force the issue in Belarus with Lukashenko’s demise, he may find he has a second war, sorry I mean special operation, on his hands … and no increase in military capacity.
It is clear that those who were in the streets in the 2020 have not since settled with their domestic dictator, let alone the big brothe and his war. They are standing ready.
Are you discounting the possibility that he was poisoned by a party that would benefit from his incapacitation?
I think that should factor into this calculus. A lot of people who seem to have been less important to Putin’s ambition have taken headers off of balconies, or died by other means.
Putin’s ability to exert influence with other near neighbours – Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan etc seems more limited now. The latter did a deal for Gas supplies with EU states only a fortnight ago. Difficult to see how that helps Putin and thus question – would Russia allow that if it had the strength to stop it?
Putin may also fear he’s sitting on a tinderbox and needs to tread carefully in Belarus.
The “Kremlin’s strategy of recruiting far from Moscow and St Petersburg” would not work for Belarus. I would argue that the Belorussian youth are more pro-Western and anti-war than Russian elites. In fact, they are on the opposite end of the scale to the impoverished and partially brain-washed Russian youth from places like Tuva or Buryatia
If a massive draft or mobilisation were to be declared in Belarus, there is little doubt as to how the conscripts, i.e. those who will not have left the country within hours, will act on the battlefield.
One wonders what the Exodus might be like when Russians try to mobilize conscript troops in Belarus? One thinks Poland and Lithuania intelligence is working over time on the resistance infrastructure.
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