Belarus joining the war in Ukraine could be risky, even for Putin | Opinions
Over the past eight months, Belarus has managed to stay away from direct involvement in the war in Ukraine, despite serving as a springboard for the full-scale invasion of its neighbor Russia. In February, Russian forces began their unsuccessful march to Kyiv from Belarusian territory.
Minsk also provided logistical support, supply lines, medical care for Russian soldiers and airfields to launch air attacks against Ukraine. It was also reported that shipments of Belarusian tanks and ammunition were carried out in occupied Donbass and Crimea.
But earlier this month, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko signaled his country could join the fighting in the Russia-Ukraine war. On October 10, the Belarusian leader announced the deployment of a “joint Belarusian-Russian military group” in response to the alleged threat of attack from Ukraine.
This step represents a significant escalation of Belarus’ role in the war to date. This signals that Lukashenko is preparing Belarusian public opinion – which since the beginning of the conflict has strongly opposed the deployment of Belarusian armed forces to fight in Ukraine – while seeking a formal, even unrealistic, justification for greater involvement. of Belarus in the conflict.
Direct involvement in the war, however, may be too risky for the Minsk regime and even for the Kremlin itself and may be too difficult to achieve.
Union State Defense Doctrine Activation
Russia’s recent annexation of four Ukrainian regions has reduced Lukashenko’s maneuvering room in the face of Russian demands to help the war effort. The Kremlin could now claim that the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the occupied Donbass and Kherson regions is an attack on the Russian-Belarusian Union State, an agreement between the two countries that provides for close political and economic integration.
The common military doctrine of this alliance, which Lukashenko signed under pressure from the Kremlin last November, stipulates that any military action against one of its members is an aggression against the unionist state as a whole.
The joint Belarusian-Russian military group is part of the common defense policy of the Union State. In announcing his deployment, Lukashenko effectively said that Belarus was in a “pre-war situation”.
It is unclear what this might entail in military terms and how large the force would be. But “rapid deployment,” to which Lukashenko referred, generally involves bringing troops to full strength, stepping up intelligence, setting up communications and operational systems, and boosting combat readiness, among others.
It can also lead to a partial mobilization of reservists and the placing on combat alert of territorial defense troops, which have taken part in frequent exercises on Belarusian soil in recent years.
Currently, the Belarusian army has some 65,000 soldiers, of which about 20,000 are support personnel and cadets. That means about 45,000 regular force members. However, their combat readiness may not be so high, given that in peacetime only part of the available troops are in service.
However, according to the media, a secret mobilization, under the guise of testing the troops’ military capabilities and readiness, has begun. At this stage, it could include support staff and target men in small towns and villages. Belarusian soldiers were reportedly banned from traveling abroad.
Deployment of Belarusian troops in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin has enough clout to pressure Lukashenko to send Belarusian forces to the battlefield. The question is whether it is reasonable to do so.
The Belarusian leader’s political fate has been in the hands of the Kremlin since the fraudulent presidential election of 2020, when his support helped keep his regime united and crush mass anti-government protests.
Since then, Lukashenko’s ability to resist Russian demands has diminished. He conceded much economic and defense sovereignty to the Kremlin by signing various “integration” documents and aligned Belarusian foreign policy with that of Russia.
Putin could also push for the creation of a joint Belarusian-Russian military command – something Belarus has never agreed to before. If that happens, Belarus would only have a say in the decision-making on paper, especially regarding the deployment of Belarusian troops across the border. In practice, however, decisions are likely to be made by Russian generals.
But how useful Belarusian troops, who lack war experience, could be to Russia is unclear. Not only will they be few in number, but they will also likely have low morale, which could make them more of a liability than an asset.
Russia itself also lacks a large number of well-trained and equipped troops to open a new front line along the Belarusian border, which Ukraine, for its part, has now fortified and mined, and blown up. its bridges.
Ukrainian military experts have also warned that Ukraine could strike preemptively if it were to spot an armed force moving in from Belarus, and its targets could include critical Belarusian infrastructure. It would also prevent Lukashenko from getting his troops across the border.
With civil society structures in Belarus crushed and protesters and opposition leaders in jail or abroad, the chances of immediate popular unrest, should Lukashenko announce a mobilization or send Belarusian troops to fight in Ukraine, could be thin.
Yet a general project would still present high political risks for Lukashenko. Russia’s war in Ukraine has been very unpopular with the Belarusian public from the very beginning. According to a recent Chatham House poll, only 9% of respondents support sending Belarusian troops to Ukraine.
This could reduce Lukashenko’s already weak public support and destabilize his regime. Sending troops to the border or fighting in Ukraine would also leave the Belarusian president without a properly trained and equipped army in Minsk to protect him. After all, a number of Belarusian army units had to be mobilized in 2020 to help suppress mass protests.
The Belarusian opposition might try to use this to their advantage. Some opposition forces have already shown more appetite for less peaceful resistance after civil protests failed to bring about political change.
In his newly united Transitional Cabinet, two posts were filled by members of the Belarusian security services and prosecutors who defected. They are setting up a network of volunteers ready for a mass uprising against the Lukashenko regime and the “Russian occupation”.
Apart from that, according to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, 1,500 Belarusians are fighting alongside the Ukrainian army and others are training to join it.
If Lukashenko were to mobilize troops and send them to Ukraine, the West would almost certainly impose even harsher sanctions, which would hurt the already struggling Belarusian economy. This, combined with the president’s unpopularity, would make it easier for the opposition to encourage defections from Belarus’ political elite and could spark popular unrest.
Lukashenko would demand more political, economic and security support from Moscow, which could divert Putin’s attention from Ukraine. A popular uprising in Belarus could also be very dangerous for the Russian president, as it could eliminate one of his closest allies and inspire political unrest in Russia itself.
In short, deploying Belarusian troops to the theater of war in Ukraine might not be very effective on the ground and could hasten Lukashenko’s downfall – something the Kremlin is likely aware of and taking into consideration when making decisions.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.