Lukashenko's relationship with Putin is more complicated than it seems
Even by the erratic standards of a man who once claimed that drinking vodka, driving tractors and heading to the sauna could fight Covid, Alexander Lukashenko’s 2nd July statement was bizarre. The Belarusian President informed his population that, three days prior, Ukraine had sought to “provoke” Belarus by hitting military facilities on its territory, but the strikes had all been intercepted. Providing no evidence for such claims, the authoritarian leader and former collective farm manager added that Belarus does not seek war with Ukraine, but would defend itself if invaded.
To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, Lukashenko may not be interested in war, but war — or, rather, a “special military operation” — is clearly interested in him. Despite permitting Russian troops to use Belarus as a launchpad for the invasion of Ukraine back in February, Lukashenko has thus far managed to avoid being dragged further into the conflict. However, as Russian losses mount on the battlefield, there are signs of Putin trying to force Lukashenko’s hand.
Indeed, Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Yevhen Yenin recently suggested that Russia could organise false flag operations, such as “infiltration by sabotage and reconnaissance groups”, to formally draw Belarus into the war. Meanwhile, in what Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, described as a “dangerous signal”, Lukashenko asserted this week that Russia and Belarus have “practically a unified army”. Meeting Putin in June and accepting nuclear capable short-range Iskander missiles, Lukashenko described it as Russia and Belarus’s “direct duty” to be ready “for the employment of the most serious weapons to protect our Fatherland”.
On the frontline, defence analyst Konrad Muzyka notes that Belarus has between four and seven battalions situated between Brest and Gomel, near Ukraine’s northern border — an “unprecedented” increase since spring — while at the weekend Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy made plans with the city’s military and civilian leaders for what to do in the event of “escalation” on the “unpredictable” Ukraine-Belarus border.
Sabre-rattling aside, Lukashenko has little to gain from formally entering the Ukraine. Though he was driven into the arms of Vladimir Putin in 2020, he has does not want to be seen as the Russian leader’s puppet. As former UK Ambassador to Belarus John Everard tells me, Lukashenko will seek to be “the president who stopped good Belarusian boys from being killed in Russia’s war” as a way to “claw back his tattered domestic support”.
“It is entirely possible that the Russians will attempt to use false flag operations to draw Belarus into the conflict”, he states. “But Lukashenko is wily and knows all about Russian manoeuvres. It is unlikely Belarus would swallow the bait, I doubt Lukashenko will want to get any deeper into this war.”
Meanwhile, after Russia’s “weakening” on the international stage over Ukraine, Everard notes that pleasing Putin is less of a priority for Lukashenko than it once was, while the sanctions-battered Russian economy cannot be counted on to sustain Belarus as reliably as it previously did. “He is less reliant on Putin than he once was”, Everard concludes.
Besides, any further involvement in Ukraine would meet with strong opposition from Belarus’s population and armed forces, with evidence of Belarusians sabotaging equipment in transit to Russian troops recently emerging. Evidently, popular support for increased involvement in the war is extremely limited in Belarus.
As Lukashenko commemorated the 3rd July anniversary of Minsk’s liberation by Soviet troops, the ceremony provided a timely reminder of Russia and Belarus’s intertwined military history. Yet, as Lukashenko tries to shore up his battered domestic popularity and the beleaguered Belarusian economy suffers under sanctions, he is likely to leave shared military operations to the history books.