Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, has allowed Russia to use his country’s territory to invade Ukraine, and has amended the constitution to accommodate Russian nuclear missiles.
But there is one bridge he has so far refused to cross: sending Belarusian troops to join the Russian attack on their common neighbor. “We are not going to participate,” Lukashenko said at a meeting of security officials this week. “It is not necessary.”
But as the Russian invasion stalls despite fierce Ukrainian resistance, officials in Kiev warned that Lukashenko — who survived massive anti-regime protests in 2020 thanks in large part to Kremlin support — may not be able to keep his troops on the sidelines forever.
Ukraine recently accused Russia of a “false flag” attack on Belarus to bring it into the war. Last weekend, Ukraine’s national security chief Oleksiy Danilov alleged that Russia was trying to persuade Belarusian soldiers to enter Ukrainian territory disguised as Russians. “They have a great desire to put Belarusian soldiers in uniforms of the Russian Federation,” he said.
Belarus dismissed the false flag claims as “nonsense”, and polls suggest Belaruss vehemently oppose their soldiers’ participation in the war. A senior US defense official said there is no indication that Belarus is sending troops to Ukraine or preparing to do so.
But as the war enters its fourth week, the need for reinforcements in Russia is becoming increasingly apparent. US officials estimate that about 6,000 Russians have died in the conflict so far.
Russia has not released figures since March 2, when it said it had suffered 498 casualties. But in tacit admission of his military troubles, President Vladimir Putin last week authorized 16,000 “volunteers” from the Middle East to join the Russian cause.
Analysts say Lukashenko has limited ability to resist Russian pressure to join the fray.
For much of his nearly three decades in power, the former collective farm boss tried to maintain some measure of autonomy from Moscow by forging ties with the EU.
But that strategy collapsed in 2020, when Lukashenko brutally cracked down on protests over his claim to have won a sixth straight term as president.
The West responded with harsh sanctions, which have hit key sectors of the Belarusian economy, and which have made Lukashenko more dependent than ever on Russian political and economic support.
Katia Glod, a Belarusian expert at the think tank Center for European Policy Analysis, said of the chances of Belarusian troops joining the fighting: “It will all come down to whether Putin decides he needs them.”
She continued: “Especially with Russian troops in the country and under the current sanctions. Lukashenko is so dependent on Russia economically that he has no room for maneuver.”
The Belarusian army, with only 45,000 men, is small compared to that of Russia and Ukraine, and has less combat experience. But given the heavy losses Russia has suffered, a deployment of Belarusian troops could be useful to the Kremlin, said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst.President Alexander Lukashenko, mustachioed, attended joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus in February © Maxim Guchek/Belta/AFP/Getty Images
“The Russians need bodies. They have already had several thousand Chechens and now they are talking about flying into Syrians,” he said. “Especially for the urban combat phase you really need a lot of manpower and that’s exactly what the Russians don’t have at the moment. So the idea of filling in with Belarusians. † † would actually make a lot of sense.”
Others are skeptical both about Belarus’ military capabilities and how motivated its soldiers would be to fight Ukrainians.
“It certainly wouldn’t be conclusive,” said Mark Cancian, a former US Marine Corps colonel now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “The only way it could be. † † would be really important if they were willing to open another front further west.”
Still, this would be a “high-risk” strategy for Belarus, which would have to rely on its own inexperienced troops. “But it would [also] would be a problem for the Ukrainians in the sense that it would be yet another blow they would have to defend against,” he added.
Michal Baranowski, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw, said it would be “very important” if Belarusian troops joined the war and closed off Ukraine’s western border, as it is the main route for the influx of arms stocks from Ukraine. allies.
But he said closing such a long border would be a huge undertaking and was “highly unlikely” at this point.
“The biggest question is not how much public support there is [for Belarusian involvement], but how much wiggle room Lukashenko has vis-a-vis Putin, and how much he is completely a puppet,” he said. “If so, that would be the scenario where we could see Belarusian troops as part of the Russian military.”
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Bratislava
This post Blocked Russian offensive increases pressure on Belarus to join invasion was original published at “https://www.ft.com/content/8649947b-9280-4863-b354-cfa815babf2d”