Lukashenko giving a speech, 2015 (Flickr)
With the announcement of Belarusian and Russian military cooperation on the southern border with Ukraine, Lukashenko converted his support for Putin into new actions. The de facto dictator, known for his controversial and absurd statements, is now accusing Ukraine of planning a "Crimean Bridge 2" attack on Belarus. With his latest action, he is once again treading a path of escalation.
Lukashenko victimizes Belarus
On October 10, Lukashenko announced that he ordered Belarusian troops to deploy with Russian forces near the border with Ukraine. For several weeks, Lukashenko has accused Ukraine and “the West” of threatening Belarus. The joint regional group of Russian and Belarusian military forces are a response to the attack on the Crimea Bridge, whose perpetrators are not yet known. Lukashenko’s latest claims that Ukraine is now planning attacks in Belarus is yet another attempt by the authoritarian leader to brand Belarus a victim of the war.
Since his presidency, Lukashenko has invariably turned to propaganda to censor public opinion and determine the narrative. In his latest version, Lukashenko attributes Ukraine the role of aggressor. A rather absurd claim for someone who allowed Russian groups to make the advance on Kiev from Belarusian territory. In addition, Lukashenko makes it seem as if there is a constant threat on his borders from the Baltic states and Poland. It seems to be a narrative that only resonates with his followers.
Belarusian opposition speaks out
On social media, opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya refuted Lukashenko's claims. On Twitter, she appealed to the Belarusian armed forces: “Ukraine doesn't pose a threat to Belarus. It's a lie by Lukashenka to justify his complicity in the terror against. He also violates our national security. I urge the Belarusian military: don't follow criminal orders, refuse to participate in Putin's war against our neighbors.” The Belarusian opposition has been voicing its disapproval of Russian aggression and Lukashenko's participation in it since the beginning of the invasion. In Belarus, the resistance to the war is still working in the background. Moreover, more than a thousand Belarusian volunteers are fighting on the Ukrainian side in the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment.
According to Tsikhanouskaya, the opposition is “ready to fight for our country”. She mentioned during the Warsaw Security Conference early October that Russia’s setbacks could loosen Lukashenko’s grip on Belarus, as his main ally is not in the position to support him monetarily nor with military. It indicates that the Belarusian opposition sees any further weakening of Lukashenko's regime as an opportunity to once again fight for change in the country. Tsikhanouskaya says a single trigger or sign of weakening is enough to mobilize thousands of people to take to the streets and overthrow the regime.
No doubt they are not eager for this in Minsk, and Lukashenko seems to be in a quandary. Sending troops to Ukraine is expected would most likely backfire for him. Not only because it endangers his own security state, which Lukashenko desperately needs to maintain order. But perhaps even more so because sending troops to this war is the trigger the opposition needs. However, at the same time, Lukashenko has repeatedly shown in the past to be unpredictable.
Belarus and Russia may escalate war even further
On the same day as Lukashenko's announcement, Ukraine was woken up by missile attacks in several cities. These excessive attacks had little to do with tactical warfare. They were a desperate answer by the Kremlin to critics at home after weeks of military losses. Civilian targets and infrastructure in Kiev, Odessa and Lviv, among others, were targeted by the Russian missiles. It was the most extensive air strike since the early stages of the war.
At the very least, sending troops to borders is provocative to Belarus' neighbors. But whether it actually leads to further escalation thus remains to be seen. The propaganda machine in Minsk firmly denies provocative behavior by Russia and Belarus. According to Belarusian state media, only 1,000 Russian troops are being sent to Belarus for the sole purpose of maintaining order.
Lukashenko's announcement raises fears that a Belarusian-Russian army force could be mobilized from the north. At first glance, however, this seems unlikely. Lukashenko's leadership is still fragile after the 2020 elections. Neither he nor Putin stand to gain from further escalation through political unrest in Belarus at the moment. So for Lukashenko, the main preoccupation currently seems to be consolidating his power. Greater participation in the war could lead the Belarusian people to rebel again against the Lukashenko regime.
However, in his years in power, Lukashenko has isolated Belarus to the extent that he seems to have no choice but to go along with the policies from the Kremlin and strengthen military cooperation between the countries in a further escalating war. Especially given that Lukashenko's power is increasingly dependent on Putin's support, he will need to keep the Kremlin appeased with the relationship.
Author: Mathieu Neelen